On Wednesday protesters took to the streets to demand ‘free’ education.
High quality education which is accessible to all is one of the most important things in a civilised society. It is education that creates opportunity and social mobility, and as Conservatives who believe in self-reliance and hard work, education is crucial to our vision.
But the thing is, higher education will never be free.
Quality education has to be paid for, and to increase access the base through which it is financed has to be broad.
The way I see it, there are two main choices for how we pay for education:
- Everyone who works and pays tax pays for it through general taxation. Central government allocates budgets to the educational institutions it favours.
- The people who benefit from the education pay for it.
The first type, which those protesters call ‘free’, is not fair or a good idea for a few key reasons.
I’d better state my interest here: I was the first person to go to university in my family, and still the only person who holds a degree. So I come at this debate from a distinctly working class point of view.
First of all, in that system people who work in low paid jobs and who have no opportunity to go to university pay extra tax to fund higher education. I don’t think that’s fair.
Secondly, government budgets are under pressure – even when we’re not running a ridiculously large deficit – which means funding would be limited and places would at best hold steady, and at worst be reduced. This means that competition for places would increase, and middle class kids from well-to-do families would have the best chance of winning places at university. And those places would be partly paid for by low paid working class people.
And this is not just a theory: across the border in Scotland we can see the effect of wholly taxpayer funded (‘free’) higher education. A smaller proportion of working class kids are going to university there than in England, as financial realities mean university places in Scotland have been cut.
By contrast, in England, greater numbers of working class kids are going to university than ever before.
I strongly favour tuition fees, because it is fundamentally fair that the people who benefit from higher education pay for it themselves.
As I said above, accessibility to education is crucial. And the present tuition fee system guarantees that with tuition fee loans that people begin paying back only when they are earning more than £21,000 per year, and then by amounts per month based on income.
This has allowed English higher education providers to expand places – with more of them going to kids from humble backgrounds like my own – and gives students additional ‘consumer power’ as they have more choice and universities have to compete to attract them.
The choice is really quite simple: a higher education funding system which restricts places, pushing working class kids out, benefitting the middle classes and paid for by people of limited means who are struggling to makes ends meet.
Or a funding system which means an expansion of university places and more working class kids in higher education than ever before, with the added fairness that the people who benefit from education pay for it – at times and rates they are able to pay.
Emily is the chairman of Conservatives for Liberty, follow her on Twitter: @ThinkEmily