Until 1998, there wasn’t such a thing as a fee for going to university. Higher education was free and accessible to all, regardless of economic background. Then things changed.
Although the inquiry into tuition fees was launched by John Major’s Conservative government, it was a Tony Blair’s Labour government that voted to introduce fees of up to £1,000 per year. Future Mayor of London Ken Livingstone reportedly accused Labour of “whipping away a ladder of opportunity which they themselves had climbed”. Labour stated in their 2001 manifesto that they would “not introduce top-up fees”, but in 2004 raised the fee limit to £3,000 per year. And while it was the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats who subsequently raised the limit to £9,000 in 2010, they acted on the findings of a report commissioned by Gordon Brown’s Labour government.
Labour are supposedly promising to cut fees to £6,000 per year, but if Nick Clegg’s previous empty pledge not to raise tuition fees is anything to go by then we shouldn’t hold our breath. Regardless, the National Health Action Party believes that the government should end tuition fees entirely, as has already been done in Scotland and in Germany. But why should we abolish tuition fees? Here are a few reasons:
- Equal access – if you believed what some Tory candidates have said in the past, then your children apparently need to come from a rich, private school background in order to get a university place. Historically this has been complete nonsense, with a combination of free higher education and grants for poorer students allowing everyone access to university. Now, an Ipsos Mori poll has found that the increase in tuition fees is putting off the majority of students from disadvantaged backgrounds from applying. To have a strong, healthy society, higher education cannot be the preserve of the rich – universities must be accessible to all.
- The graduate premium – it is often claimed that graduates from university enjoy an overall increase in lifetime earnings of up to £100k, thanks to their increased earning potential. This ‘graduate premium’ is calculated based on various assumptions – that the student spends three years in university and then gets a job commensurate with their degree on leaving university. There are many obvious exceptions, such as medics and vets who spend at least five years at university, and teachers and nurses whose starting salaries may not reflect their level of education. Even for those who enter a high-earning job straight out of university, the graduate premium is already shrinking thanks to rising fees and competition from an ever-growing body of fellow students. Is it really fair to sell students a dream of a better future, then leave them saddled with debts while they struggle as an over-qualified employee of the catering or retail sector?
- Affordability – as mentioned, fees didn’t exist in the UK until 1998, and Scotland has already done away with them entirely. And believe it or not, it was a conservative government in Germany who abolished fees after only a brief flirtation with the idea of charging. Both countries recognise that free higher education is entirely affordable, and that charging students to go to university is both unfair and deeply unpopular.