Rebecca Coulson is a freelance classical musician and writer, and the Conservative Prospective Parliamentary candidate for the City of Durham.

Most people think that university should be free because it used to be. But it never was. Whilst we’re at it, neither is the NHS: we pay for these things through taxation. Is this misconception the reason why we keep asking how the state can support everyone who goes to university, rather than whether it should? And why do we focus only on the cost that students incur by attending, ignoring the reasons behind this cost, and the funds needed to ensure our universities’ continued excellence?

A few days ago I took part in the NUS’ #GenerationVote Twitter debate: each week, the MP and PPCs of a different university constituency are posed questions by local students. Unsurprisingly, the answers provoking the biggest public response declared views on tuition fees. Education funding is a dangerously emotive topic; alongside the NHS, we’re talking about nationally-treasured institutions, whose preservation affects everyone. Consequently, a manifesto promise of limitless support can be a big vote winner – but proves increasingly untenable, as the Lib Dems discovered after having won seats through their idealistic ‘no top-up fees’ pledge. We must remember that these fees were introduced not through ideology, but necessity. If the state can’t afford to fund university tuition in entirety, who better to contribute than its principle beneficiaries, the graduates?

Yet, even as tuition fees have increased – through the Dearing (up to £1,000 p.a), Clarke (up to £3,000 p.a.), and Browne (up to £9,000 p.a.) years – the state has continued to foot much of the bill. Relatively little has yet been recouped from student loans, raising questions of economic sustainability. It is important to be aware, however, that the current, much maligned system, does offer university tuition which is free at the point of delivery (as they clumsily say). This is much more inclusive of those from low-income families, and should be better appreciated, not least because for many graduating today an immediate salary of over £21,000 (the point at which payback begins) is but a dream. 

Obfuscation and misdirection about the current system are exemplified by those who claim they’d prefer some generic graduate tax alternative (check out #GenerationVote to see cross-spectrum politicians trotting this out without hesitation or clarification): they clearly have no understanding of how what is in place works. What the Conservative-led government offers is an income-contingent, fixed-term tax liability none other than, in simpler terms, the hallowed graduate tax. 

An inventive alternative was proposed by last week’s IEA Ainsworth report. Its clever ‘free-market graduate tax’ isn’t a tax at all, of course, because its contract lies between student and university, rather than state. But it’s hard to envisage how this ‘tax’ could work in reality, without a great deal of upheaval, expense, and above all, uncertainty. And it does seem to call for a rather Faustian life-long commitment to endless payment – unlike the current solution. For a truly weak suggestion, however, consider Labour’s offer to reduce the cap on fees to £6,000. Not only is this retrograde in addressing the funding problem, it also offers a relatively small reduction in the debt a student amasses.

Any way you look at it, maintaining our multitudinous universities, with their multitudinous students, is vastly expensive. The funding conundrum this poses is further confused by the hefty living costs run up by students, many of whom think it unfair that these can outweigh their tuition fees. But surely they wouldn’t expect the state to fund their food and shelter if they weren’t studying? Indeed, if they were working instead, it would be the other way round: they’d be contributing financially to the state through taxation. Since going to university is optional, shouldn’t we compare its associated living costs with those faced by people at, say, boarding school? The few institutions which do provide state-funded board and lodgings tend to be those you don’t choose to attend, such as prison and hospital. (The latter being a more controversial provision, not least because many patients don’t hesitate to waste ward stodge in favour of expensively nasty sandwiches from the hospital shop.) A commitment to attending university needs to include a commitment to its related costs.

And we must rethink our overall attitude towards higher education. How has it become, to so many, a rite of passage consisting of the reticent study of a subject chosen to excuse a three year party? This isn’t justifiable – either in terms of expense, or more importantly, reason. Of course there should be some state provision for education. Even from my contractarian libertarian viewpoint, it’s a vital part of the defence the individual needs the state to provide. But this support can’t be indiscriminate. Obviously we need to maintain research and vital vocational study such as medicine, but whilst branching out further than this is necessary, too, it’s more complicated. Study and knowledge have intrinsic value, but this just isn’t the most prevalent reason behind the taking of non-vocational university degrees. 

Simply, there are too many students for it to remain possible or fair for the state to fund all of them without unbearably hiking tax towards mountainous Scandinavian levels, or at least the hills of Europe. If university attendance continues to increase, state provision will need further subsidy from self-finance and private investment – reflecting the way in which post-graduate study is paid for. This could, potentially, maintain and drive up standards, without eating into the funding necessary for the continued existence of the universities themselves. The only other option is to hope for a culture change engendering American levels of philanthropy.

But maybe we need to turn all this upside down. To return to my earlier point, why is it a question of how we can help to support everyone who wants to go to university? We do not need to do this, and, I would argue, should not and cannot. We must stop propagating the idea that everyone should go to university; it’s offensive to suggest it’s the only worthwhile trajectory for an eighteen-year-old. And it’s irrational and unhelpful to set arbitrary attendance targets. Of course it’s essential that we continue ‘access work’ to ensure that background isn’t a barrier to application, but implying that everyone, of all academic abilities, is suited to this type of study is but a socialist imposition of fake equality. 

This desire to equalise hasn’t just branded all students the same; it’s also tried to square all higher education establishments. The death of the polytechnic has squeezed research funding, and taken away the opportunity of variety. We have nothing to rival the American model: the University of California, for instance, offers three tiers of education – its world-famous research-leaders Berkeley and UCLA attract the brightest academically-focused students, its teaching-focused state campuses offer a mid-ground, and its community colleges give post-school opportunities to the more vocationally minded. If we stopped seeing the conferment of university status as the teleology of all HE institutions, the ensuing variety wouldn’t just meet student demand more appropriately, it could also attract targeted private investment for specific kinds of vocational or professional training, and allow for a free market at the top end.  

If we reconsider the very nature of university education, and accept that students are adults, who, rather than having a right to it, should choose what suits them best, then we can help them to take responsibility for the cost this choice incurs. This approach would relieve the burden on the state, allowing it to help where genuinely needed.