Student fees, eh? Sort them out and you’ve sorted out English HE. Or, at least, that’s what the assembled general election candidates appear to be suggesting.
I’ve been over before how the botched, mis-sold, implementation of the Browne system that we are living through is a festering sore on the underbelly of all that is true and holy about quality policy making – and remains the economic equivalent of Jeremy Clarkson demanding a late-night steak made entirely out of cuts to other parts of the BIS budget.
Lancing the thing before it dwarfs David Cameron’s hair-dye bill is simply good public policy management, and the fact that so vanishingly few of the parties people may wish to vote for (and also the Liberal Democrats) are actually proposing to do this is another reason to stare at the floor muttering helplessly. When the best that the mainstream parties can offer is Labour’s offer of only twice what fees were in 2010 without any underlying change in the system, we are looking at a weak set of ideas indeed.
Martin “MoneySavingExpert™” Lewis, that everyman champion of the pound in your pocket (and the several million pounds of Money Supermarket’s in his) has his face set against the idea of even this mild amelioration, because – y’know, rich people and stuff.
Because only those graduates who earn a respectable ,though not insanely so, salary (think senior teachers, middle-ranking civil servants and supermarket managers) will benefit from not paying the last £3,000 – Lewis is set against the whole idea.
He’s wrong, and this is why:
His “student loan calculator” makes, as you would expect, a number of assumptions concerning the future state of the economy. Just to pick on a couple, it assumes an annual average salary growth of RPI+2% (currently the average is a little over than 1%, growth has been negative over the past 7 years. And who the hell uses RPI any more??). It assumes inflation will sit at 3% – (CPI) currently lies at a hefty 0.0%, with every expectation that it will turn negative.
It also makes a number of assumptions about graduates, namely that they stay in the same job – without any career breaks – from graduation to retirement, with salary increasing smoothly and dependably from that point. So, not for our hypothetical graduate the traditional path of working an entry-level job for a while then jumping into management.
Figures drawn from these (or any) approximation are liable to bear little or no resemblance to lived reality – but even assuming that they do there is a whole load of other things to consider.
Like the tax system: could high earning graduates end up paying additional income tax (or property tax, or – hell – VAT) than those earning less. Absolutely they will. Will paying (say) 50% rather than 45% on the top end of your income offset the £3,000 this policy would save our hypothetical head-teacher? We don’t know. Will a society riven with an growing divide between the rich and poor eventually elect a government with a more progressive approach to tax? Quite possibly.
So let’s also add in the effect on choice. How much more difficult would it be to get a mortgage with a hypothetical £27,000+ of unsecured debt rather than £18,000+ or indeed none? As yet, no-one knows – the first “new system” cohort graduate this only year. What are the “magic” barriers where an increase in wages will be offset by an increase in repayment rates? – meaning you don’t take a salary increase as it leaves you and your family worse off. The data isn’t there.
So let’s move away from guesswork about the state of our country and economy in 30 years time and into the realm of things we actually know.
Firstly – and to me most importantly – increasing direct state funding for all students (the corollary of cutting the fees) closes a regulatory hole that has lain gaping since 2011 and has seen some truly dreadful behaviour by university managers. The Browne travesty effectively privatised the UK public institutions, greatly increased the impact of HE on state finances and saddled students with 30 years of debt – truly the worst of all possible worlds. The regulatory deficit is, by a nose, the most insidious of the three as it allowed (deliberately) universities to act in the interest of their balance sheet rather than their students or their funders (which remains the state until the system breaks even some time in the 2040s). We’ve seen sustained and unprecedented attacks on the terms and conditions of staff, and we’ve seen complaints by students rise (even as lip service is paid to the unholy mess that is the National Student Survey).
An additional (£3,000) short term cost to the government per student make more sense to the national finances than a long term cost that is already projected to be more than £3,000 per student. We’ve seen the RAB rate rise and rise as the economy continues to become more hostile to young people. Obviously I’d prefer that we did something other than subsidise low pay via the benefit system (that would make long term economic sense too!) but as this seems to be the consensus we should probably admit it exists.
If so many graduates are not and were never going to pay back the top £3k or the interest accruing on it, why lend them it?
Finally, and as Lewis – to be fair – does point out, there is a psychological benefit. I still think £6k is a lot of money (measuring, as I do, the cost of everything in terms of the price of Nord keyboards) but it is less than £9k. £6k, bluntly, is just over £5k – or enough for a fairly respectable Nord rig, whereas £9k is near enough £10k and could get me two.
“But what about Living Costs?” I hear you cry. “Couldn’t we use this £3k for extra living cost grants?” – well yes, we could. But this wouldn’t fix the massive issue with how much we – as a country – are spending on fees. We need to get that under control – it may be less attractive, but it needs doing.