As a member of the first cohort of undergraduates to be charged £9,000 tuition fees in 2012, we were the guinea pigs in a progressive experiment. An experiment that in 2014 saw 10% rise in applications from poorer families. Which saw in the same year, the inequality gap reduce as those of disadvantaged backgrounds became increasingly likely to apply. That is not to say the system of what we have now is just or economically fair.
During my UCAS applications, maintenance and tuition fee grants were made available to those who needed it the most. George Osborne saw to the end of that in the 2015 Budget. As all grants, both tuition and maintenance were scrapped. Removing the support for the disadvantaged who needed the confidence to apply in the first place. It removed a balancing tool needed to move us onto the same playing field.
Now the discussion has turned to abolishing fees altogether.
However, free higher education is regressive. In Scotland, evidence suggests that free tuition and their associated cuts in grants actually benefit middle-earning families more, becoming £20m better off. While poorer students have been hit with rising costs of £32m annually. Clearly there must be a better way.
This was attempted to be reached in the emergency debate on tuition fees in the House of Commons on Wednesday. In it Labour were attacked for their apparent backtrack on wiping the student debt. A redundant discussion to score publicity points. The attacks were based on Jeremy Corbyn's interview with the teen magazine NME. A platform which I am guessing he did not intend to use for a policy announcement.
However their current stance of abolishing tuition fees is regressive as demonstrated by examples like Scotland. The author of the study in Scotland calls tuition fees "superficially universal". It "does not have the egalitarian, progressive effects claimed for it". Effectively calling it a feel-good solution which falls at the first hurdle - to help disadvantaged families.
What needs to be achieved is a reform of the current system.
Firstly, fair and means tested grants have to be brought back and with greater reach here in England. To decrease overall debt for those in need. To provide the economic freedom those better off already receive. To encourage and boost the confidence of children from disadvantaged backgrounds to apply to university.
Secondly, interest rates on loans need to be fixed to inflation (RPI). Currently, if you are capable of paying the lump sum of £9,000 at the beginning of your undergraduate degree, thanks to the bank of mommy and daddy. You will pay less in real terms than those who are saddled with debt and interest rates which are higher than inflation. This needs to be stamped out.
Thirdly, to take it one step further, the repayment threshold should be raised along with inflation if not more. It currently is fixed at £21,000.
People tout a graduate tax as more progressive. But a tax will remove control of the funds from universities to government. It would enable the pot to be fought over among politicians for their own goals. To plug funding gaps rather than providing and improving higher education.
Also a tax will not allow higher education to be funded at the onset of a students degree.
The money which we owe should be the same, people with student loans should not see the interest on those loans rise more than inflation. But if families are able to pay off their debt immediately then let them, let them fund higher education with their wealth. But they should not have an advantage over less well-off households who are punished with high interest rates.
University education benefits the whole country and especially so here in England, an academic powerhouse. We have the resources and thus potential to educate all those who wish and deserve it.
But studying at university is a privilege.
Those who graduate earn more than £500,000 over an average working life versus non-graduates and this inequality is growing. There is perhaps a greater injustice to make non-graduates people pay for this privilege, especially if those who graduate are more capable of funding themselves.
The current system needs change: bring back grants, keep interest rates to inflation and explore more ways to reform the progressive system we have now. If income tax needs to be raised to fund the grants, go ahead, but abolishing tuition fees is taking two steps back after moving an inch forward.