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The Abolition of Tuition Fees Is Not Sustainable - Nor Is It Equitable

07/12/2015 09:19 GMT | Updated 03/12/2016 10:12 GMT

Britain's much-maligned system of funding higher education is not only fairer; abolishing fees is simply not a viable option in our current economic climate.

With 50% of my peers entering tertiary education, providing free higher education to all is an unattainable goal. The sum required to abolition tuition fees is estimated to be £12 billion - equivalent to a 13% increase in the education budget. With UK national debt (including state and public sector pensions liabilities) at £78,000 per person, we simply cannot afford these frivolities.

Nor can it be claimed that an abolition of tuition fees would be equitable, as Scotland indicates. The Labour-led coalition that preceded Alex Salmond's Scottish National Party (SNP) abolished fees in 2000, yet this abolition has ultimately been to the detriment of lower-income students. Due to fiscal restraints, the Scottish government compensated for their fee abolition by subsequently cutting college places for those from lower-income backgrounds. Scotland's further-education colleges, which typically educate students from low-income backgrounds, have experienced a funding cut of 20% in real-terms since 2010.

Since 2011, Scotland's elite universities have welcomed fewer students from state schools through their door (as a proportion of the cohort) and the proportion of university students from non-professional backgrounds rose at a faster pace in England (despite the supposedly prohibitive fee rise.)

Doom-mongers proclaimed that a tuition fee rise would deter lower-income students from attending university, a frequently repeated factoid that is utter bunkum. 2014 UCAS figures indicate a 10% rise in university candidates from poorer backgrounds, with the gap between affluent students and their lower-income counterparts closing.

England's tuition fee increase also coincided with an extended repayment system. Under the new system, graduates who started university after 2012 earning £22,000 a year will pay 9% on every penny over £21,000, a payment of £90 a year or £7.50 a month.

Conversely, pre-2012 university students paid 9% on every penny over £15,000. On the same £22,000 salary, a graduate would have paid £630 a year. The increased payment threshold benefits those on lower incomes who pay back less of their graduate salary.

The Institute of Economic Affairs has extensively researched 'a free-market graduate tax' which provides a salient alternative to taxpayers absorbing the whole cost of tertiary education and the current fees system.

The think-tank's proposed graduate tax involves an equity-based scheme, with university holding a direct stake into the future of their graduates, rather than the current debt-based financing model.

Universities internalise the costs of running the courses upfront in return for a proportion of their graduate salary. This provides an equitable outcome in which funds go directly to the institution, institutions are free from the stranglehold of government regulation (as they will no longer be reliant on government funds) and given payback is dependant on the success of their students, universities will have a stronger interest in the education and employability of their graduates. Importantly, it alleviates the tertiary education burden from the taxpayer.

There is nothing progressive or fair about expecting taxpayers - including those who didn't attend university and those who are currently towards the bottom end of the income scale - to subsidise the education of students who are typically from more fortunate backgrounds, who will then in turn gain a degree which allows them to earn a significant graduate premium (of £168,000 for men and £252,000 for women).

Rather than seeking to saddle the taxpayer with further costs, the protestors should divert their resources to seeking a viable alternative to the real educational scandals such as rampant grade inflation or the decline in the number of grammar schools. With Britain's stubborn structural deficit requiring fiscal consolidation, introducing a more costly system for the state is neither sustainable nor practical; shifting the burden of tertiary education from the state onto students is in all of our interests.