Can We Afford to Scrap Tuition Fees?

Before tackling the question of whether we can afford to scrap tuition fees, let’s examine the reasons for wanting to scrap them in the first place. Like many others who voted for the Lib Dems back in the 2010 General Election, I was disappointed when Nick Clegg not only failed to deliver his pledge to abolish tuition fees, but once in government, actually voted to treble tuition fees to £9,000, alongside other Lib Dem MPs. Prospective university students and young Lib Dem supporters felt betrayed, myself included. Earlier this year, Nick Clegg tried to plead with students to win back their trust, but after such a shocking U-turn from his promise to scrap tuition fees, these attempts seemed fruitless and desperate.

Clegg defended himself by highlighting that the university application rate is at a record high for 18 year olds. He maintains, therefore, that the trebling of tuition fees has not deterred young people from applying to university. However, just because more young people want to go to university does not mean that extortionate tuition fees won’t set them back after they graduate. A 21 year old could graduate with a debt not only of £21,000 after 3 years, but the accumulated debt of living expenses as well, which range from £7,000-£10,000 per year. So that same 21 year old could leave university with a potential debt of £50,000 or more. This is a very daunting prospect for anyone. The income threshold to pay off your student loan is £16,910 and you pay 9% of your income over this threshold. Even with a graduate job, you could still have to pay back your loan over the next 10 years or more.

Those MPs who voted in favour of trebling tuition fees probably never had to deal with such an enormous debt after graduating from Oxbridge, so it is difficult for them to empathise with the burden and economic setbacks it creates for graduates. In any case, even though the Lib Dems failed to meet their promise of abolishing tuition fees, many still believe (myself included) that the government should scrap them. The debt incurred by university living expenses is enough of a burden as it is.

Molly Scott Cato, a member of the Green Party, wrote a paper for the think tank Green House called Free Universities. In it, she explains the negative consequences of a higher education funding model based on debt. The most disastrous consequence, she contends, is that it impacts extremely unfairly on students with different financial backgrounds and it exacerbates existing social inequalities. Because loans accrue interest throughout one’s working life, the cheapest way through the debt system is to repay the debt as quickly as possible. Clearly, then, this will be much easier for richer students whose parents are able to partly fund their fees and living expenses. And of course, this won’t even be an issue for students whose parents funded all of their fees and living expenses. Students from low income families, on the other hand, may be working long hours in order to reduce their need to borrow. This means that they have less time to study compared to students from higher income families who don’t need to work. Therefore, these inequalities can be reflected in achievements, but they won’t be reported on degree certificates.

Research by Grant Thornton indicates that those who lose the most from this system are those graduates on high, but not excessively high salaries. A civil servant, for example, even if they achieve rapid career progression, won’t be able to pay off their loan rapidly. A loan of £40,000 could incur an interest of £58,000! For this reason and many others, Cato believes that tuition fees should be scrapped, with higher education fully publicly funded. It should be funded publicly because it is a benefit to society, not just a means for individuals to earn higher salaries. A university education should be allocated on the basis of ability to benefit from it, rather than ability to pay. Some countries, with considerably weaker economies than the UK, have adopted this strategy, including the Czech Republic.

Cato does admit that this goal is idealistic and offers more pragmatic models in her paper. On the other hand, even if the goal is idealistic, this still does not mean we cannot afford to scrap tuition fees. Our tax money is used for far more questionable goals, so it is not unrealistic to think that the majority of people would rather fund a university education for everyone who can benefit from it, as opposed to our nuclear weapons programme, for example. The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) stresses that if we save the £100bn that the government wants to spend on the replacement to the Trident programme, we could scrap tuition fees for the next 30 years. Let’s also bear in mind that a nuclear weapons programme is hardly an economic investment, whereas a free university education definitely is: it will enable more students (regardless of their financial background) to develop problem-solving abilities and gain specialist knowledge, both of which are highly valuable in the complex society we live in.

Education should be viewed as a public rather than a private good, a perspective which is in conflict with the Coalition’s further privatisation of higher education. Many may agree with this point on principle, but is it realistic to think we can disarm our nuclear weapons in order to fully publicly fund higher education? It may not be realistic for the PM to turn around and decide to disarm nuclear weapons, however, there is clear public opposition to renewing the Trident system. A recent poll revealed that 79% of respondents did not want the UK to renew its Trident nuclear missile system. A previous poll conducted by The Guardian found that 68% of respondents believed nuclear weapons should be scrapped altogether.

Of course, we must take into account the limited nature of these surveys – after all, readers of the Guardian are more likely to be left-wing and therefore be sympathetic towards the nuclear disarmament movement. Nonetheless, if the majority of the public is in favour of nuclear disarmament, or at least against renewing the Trident system, then the government should act in these interests. There are also other reasons to disarm our nuclear weapons beyond the economic reason to do so. There are doubts about the strategic value of nuclear weapons. It has been argued that there has been a diminished nuclear threat towards the UK since the Cold War, meaning that these weapons no longer serve as effective deterrents. Field Marshall Lord Bramall, former head of the British Armed Forces, says that nuclear weapons are “completely useless as a deterrent to the threats and scales of violence we currently, or are likely to, face.”

Michael Portillo, former Conservative Defence Secretary, said that nuclear weapons have “past [their] sell-by date…because we face enemies like the Taliban and al-Qaida, who cannot be deterred by nuclear weapons.” Chemical and biological weapons are now the serious threats and the Ministry of Defence has said in the past that a limited nuclear strike may be an effective deterrent against such threats, which means it would be pointless to renew the Trident system. (Although it's worth noting that both chemical and biological weapons are banned under separate international conventions). 189 countries have signed the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty which commits its signatories not to develop nuclear weapons if they don’t have them already or to disarm them if they do. The UK is one of only 8 (or possibly 9) states that possesses nuclear weapons - the rest of the world realises that their safety does not depend on owning weapons of mass destruction.

Finally, there is the moral argument against possessing any weapons of mass destruction. The nuclear bomb is considered the most evil thing that humans have ever invented. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu has put it, “Most intelligent people would agree that nuclear weapons spell the obliteration of the world.” Nuclear weapons often have high civilian death rates and radiation from a single explosion poses health risks to communities worldwide. Any use of nuclear weapons would be catastrophic and this fact poses serious moral issues.

Proponents of nuclear weapons argue that possessing them discourages countries from entering into nuclear war – but this is absurd; possessing them is what makes nuclear war a possibility in the first place! In addition, the monopoly of nuclear weapons by the largest countries isolates others and threatens international co-operation. Research by the International Red Cross describes the disastrous consequences of even a limited nuclear war on the climate, resulting in global food shortages.

The CND is in partnership with the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN). In this document they argue why a global prohibition of nuclear weapons is necessary, how a ban treaty would work and how to achieve such a ban. They highlight how there is global support for the goal of prohibiting nuclear weapons. However, we still have to think realistically about this issue – David Cameron would not scrap the Trident programme altogether unless a global ban treaty was put in place. Perhaps with enough public pressure and political leadership this can materialise in the future, but it is doubtful whether this will happen in the near future, or even in my own lifetime.

There is another way to publicly fund higher education and it also involves scrapping a useless and immoral programme. This programme is the War on Drugs. By saving the billions of pounds that are used on drug law enforcement, as well as gaining the revenue generated by taxing all drugs, we could at least partly publicly fund higher education so that students do not incur such staggering debts. I have argued before how the legalisation of cannabis alone could generate substantial amounts of tax revenue, which Colorado has proved.

There are many reasons why we should legalise drugs – for the sake of individual freedom, to make drugs safer, to eliminate drug-related crime, to save and generate substantial amounts of money and to tackle institutionalised racism. However, as with the case of nuclear disarmament, the trouble is persuading our political leaders to see sense. We can afford to scrap tuition fees, but only if our government is willing to prioritise education as a public good over nuclear weapons and drug prohibition. 

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I'm a freelance writer who is interested in a variety of subjects, especially those which are philosophical, complex and involve a multitude of perspectives. I created this blog in order to share my thoughts, and to encourage debate and discussion about the most fascinating topics I can think of. Get in touch: samwoolfe@gmail.com