What are we worth?

The Government is right to raise tuition fees, but the row masks a bigger problem with education in Britain.

Amidst riotous scenes in central London on Thursday, MPs voted narrowly to endorse the Government’s plans to triple the cap on tuition fees paid by English university students from £3,290 per annum to £9,000 from 2012.

The move, which is a watered-down version of the recommendations proposed by Lord Browne, the ex-boss of BP tasked to review university funding by Labour in 2009, has been controversial. In the past month students have staged demonstrations, sit-ins and occupations in schools and universities across the country, with a few incidences of violence. All in all, though, the decision is a wise one, on several accounts.

The idea of shifting the burden of tuition from the taxpayer to the student is not new. Labour first introduced tuition fees in 1998, at a level of £1,000, and replaced universal grants with student loans. It then tripled fees to £3,250 in 2007. Like a tax, once tuition fees were introduced, the rate could only go up. The coalition’s plans are simply continuing that trend, albeit with a big jump in figures (but then, tripling tuition fees is what Labour did in 2007).

The introduction of tuition fees reflects a shifting consensus on the taxpayer’s responsibility for funding higher education. With the number of university graduates increasing significantly in the past decade, the cost of funding them has grown exponentially too. Not only is it increasingly expensive, it represents an ever-growing transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich. According to the BBC on average it costs £7,000 a year to provide someone with a university education, and £3,250 covers just about half of that. Most of the other half has to be coughed up by taxpayers, most of whom have not had the privilege of going to universities themselves. Is it fair to ask them to fund others to have that privilege? Graduates in general earn higher in their lifetimes than non-graduates, and it is quite perverse to ask the poor to pay for the richer-to-be.

But a more worrying problem about the value for money paid to fund university education is how devalued it has become. As said, the university population has expanded, but quantity does not mean quality. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, an international organisation made up of developed states, recently published its triennial report on the academic achievements of teenagers in its member states, including Britain. The report showed that improvements in Britain’s education standards have not kept up with improvements elsewhere, meaning that its position on the global league table has once again slipped, with difficulties especially in reading and numeracy. Below-average secondary school students do not suddenly become above-average university students—the increase in the university student population does not necessarily reflect a nation becoming smarter. Although a separate OECD study has stated that Britain spends less on higher education as a percentage of GDP compared with many other countries, it does not mean that simply splashing out more on students is the answer.

Critics of the Government’s plans fear that bright students from poorer backgrounds will be discouraged from applying to university because of the debt burden. It is a legitimate worry, although it is misplaced. First, tuition fees are not to be paid upfront. A graduate will only begin to repay fees when his or her income exceeds £21,000—a salary comfortable for most singletons (especially if outside London). Any outstanding debt will be erased in 30 years, meaning that there is a definite end to repayments. If a graduate from a low-income family continues to earn only a low income, he or she need not pay.

But I think the big obstacle stopping bright but poor students from going to university is culture rather than affordability. Going to university is a big investment in someone’s life, and what many poorer students seem to lack is proper guidance. A school with a traditionally low university-going rate is not likely to have in place a high-quality university counselling service, giving potential undergraduates good advice on applying. A historical lack of graduates in poorer neighbourhoods cannot make university sound like an attractive option. Therefore the Government’s schemes to actively promote the benefits of higher education, even though it is increasing fees, are welcome.

The problem of low university attendance from poorer communities is reflective of a bigger problem about the state of education in Britain. Although the Labour Government had thrown a lot of cash into education in the past 13 years, it has failed to yield results, as the disappointing OECD report shows. The issue is clearly not money, but attitudes and standards. Part of the fault lies with the currently disincentivising benefits system, which is already under a much needed overhaul. The Government’s belief that money is not everything, partly forced on it by the country’s large public deficit, is beginning to change the country’s view on education. The social status of teacher needs to be improved. Schools need to have more freedom to operate. The standards of education should be raised. Vocational training should once again occupy a greater place in lifelong learning, so that universities can be left to the truly academically gifted to enter, but without leaving non-graduates feeling marginalised.

Although not all of the Government’s plans for reforming the education sector are universally welcome, the courage it has shown to stand firm on its plans, especially in the face of irate protesters on its doorstep, may ultimately pave the way for a smarter, more prosperous Britain.