13 October 2010

A Browne Stick

University funding is always a fun issue, so many problems, so few obvious solutions

I probably can't handle a full debate of all the issues right now, but I will try to extrapolate what is in my head

Firstly I feel the issue boils down to this:

University costs money

Previously (in living memory), the student was aided by the government to attend university, however this was a very small figure and therefore quite cheap, ironic considering it was mostly the wealthiest going in the first place...

So to improve fairness, more people were allowed to go to university - costing more, and more, and more

Until one day it cracked, and Parliament, solely inhabited by those who had never paid for this education, inflicted a capped amount on students to reduce the burden - this rose twice in the past decade, meaning the typical student paid about 9 grand for a degree

Labour then spent hundreds of billions of pounds on what was effectively a credit card, granted with a very good APR, but eventually it meant we had to stop spending on things like students...which they had at the same encouraged to be every second teenager, meaning we once again had to find university cash

But by this point, students, paying three grand a year plus living costs were rather angry about having to pay nine grand before even having a real job, and having to amass thousands of pounds of debts, when the very ones who benefited from a free education, their parents' generation, were the ones to inflict it on them

And so lifting the cap would cause outrage, from students, parents and Lib Dems alike

And so a 'graduate tax' was thought of - those who benefited from university paying slightly more for the privilege of it for the rest of their lives, this didn't go down too well with the Conservative Members - who saw the idea of taxing someone who earns the same as a builder more because they happen to have a degree in the history of art, as rather unfair

And so along came Browne, another one with a free education, and he took the middle road - he did raise the cap, but he also said don't pay upfront, but pay after, with added interest

In effect, a tax on being a graduate, but one that was based on what you cost, not a true 'tax', but one that was worth a finite amount determined by you - and it also stopped the hard-pressed parent or student paying up front, thus appeasing the Liberals, they hoped

But alas, it did not appease many - some resented yet another rise in the cost, and disliked the idea of debts being enforced, whereas before they were an option, and others pointed out that the richest will pay off fastest, the poor won't pay at all, and the rest of us will pay the most

Meanwhile there were concerns that allowing the best universities to charge more than the worst, would prevent the poorest (or 'middlest') accessing what should be theirs on merit

And so, the government of toffs was once again, seen to be unfair on the common pleb, from whom it had already stolen the breeding bonus

Joking aside, I am in a pickle - the whole issue is in a pickle, we simply don't know who should pay, the individual or the government

If the individual pays it becomes elitist, for the wealthy, and only the poorest benefit from hand-outs, the average man loses out big time

If the government pays, then we all pay for a free education - probably the 'fairest' option, but also costly and would require a tax rise (or a dramatic redirection of funds...which I'm not opposed to, myself)

So neither is viable - once again we sit between the American and the European models - wanting individual liberty and choice, but fairness and equality in opportunity at the same time

The choice is fairly simple - either pay or don't, the fact that this is the third review in a decade shows that the system we have cooked up is not sustainable long-term, primarily down to far too many students, which while forcing individual costs up, has, ironically, pushed the worth of a university education down - meaning we're paying more, for less

Personally, I don't mind a contribution - the problem lies in how much is too much? Why is 10 grand too much? Is three too much? It's completely subjective, and charging a fee you pay back later seems to me, a reasonable idea - but the added interest is an unfair tax on the typical middle-income worker, and the uncapped system is also unfair on that same group, likely to shy away from bigger debts just because they're really good at exams on Shakespeare

Likewise, how often can we expect a rise in the cost? At present it's about every three years, usually a 100% rise, this again, is unfair on future generations

It is of course only unfair if we choose to see it as a right, not a privilege, but we seem to expect our higher education to be accessible to all, that is ingrained in our culture and we seem unlikely to head down the private, free market road

I think a degree of repayment is sensible - certainly you should pay something back, if not through general taxation, but the issue I see, that few have yet to mention is the unsustainable aspect of expanding education - the government wants to increase student numbers, this year it didn't, but it admits it doesn't want to cut places

Any cut in funding, or rise in numbers, places a further burden on the system - hence why we keep altering it and forcing one generation to have it worse than the last - that to me, doesn't seem 'fair'

The system needs to be sustainable - that means limiting the number of students to a good proportion of the population, but accepting that only this proportion need, or are capable of, this advanced education -  this will stop saturation of the jobs market, reductions in teaching quality and further punitive rises in 'contributions'

They have to accept the idea of 'failed applicants' - of course some will fail, if there weren't failures then we'd be advocating a universal system, it's called competition, and while the system should be fair, until it's a universal education system then there will, and should, always be those who aren't accepted, however sad that may be

Right now we have an education sector that is exploding in size, and that is why we're having so many issues, and politicians, of all hues, have failed to grasp the nettle (as always) - dealing with it in minute steps to avoid political fall-out

The alternative to capping the number of students is to cover the cost through general taxation, if student numbers grow and grow then it will truly become a 'right', to expect this level of education, and if we all benefit, then we should all pay, and the fairest method for that, is... income-based taxation, with possibly a fixed across-the-board, but stable, fee

Historically, this could simply be seen as a period of growth - if it plateaus, then the unfairness dies away, but if it keeps growing, we're in for decades of turmoil

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