Dismantling the Facts on Fees

Posted on December 9, 2010


As you will have noticed, there is a lot of debate about tuition fees at the moment. While I disapprove of the new proposal, the worst thing about the situation is the stream of disinformation coming from MPs and other people in support of the proposal. I had prepared a long post about tuition fees that was quite wordy. However, this morning I was sent a link to http://www.factsonfees.com/ on Twitter.

This site claims to be done on the behalf of the Conservative party and lists 10 ‘myths’ that are apparently fueling the opposition. Let’s have a look at the 10 claims individually.

Myth 1 – I don’t have £9,000 so I can’t go to uni

This has been reeled out by almost all MPs in favour of the new system. Do they really believe that all of the people protesting think they have to pay up front? The university students opposing the fees (including student unions) know exactly how the current fee system works and none of the younger people who have been interviewed in media have made any such claim.

Myth 2 – I won’t be able to repay the debt

Again, I’ve not heard anybody make this claim. People have claimed that having this debt might affect their ability to get a mortgage or other loans but not that they wouldn’t be able to repay it. Owing £18,000 will affect people’s abilities to do other things and I’m not going to dignify the argument that the loan isn’t a debt with a response.

Myth 3 – I’d be better off under the current system

The defence to this argument has at least some grounding in the truth. As the site explains, graduates will pay back considerably less per month and only when they’re earning more money than under the current system. However, if you had the choice of paying £20 per month for 12 months (a total of £240) or £10 per month for 5 years (£600) which would do you think would make you ‘better off’?

Personally, I’d think paying £20 for 12 months would make me better off. It is possible to claim that paying less per month makes you better off but it’s wrong to tell people who prefer the other system that they are wrong and don’t understand the proposal.

Myth 4 -I’ll be paying off the debt forever

Again, this isn’t an argument I’ve heard put forward by anyone but one that has been countered at every oppurtunity. Even so the defence that the debt will be written off after 30 years isn’t a great one. University is meant to be a springboard into better jobs and greater earnings. Why, therefore, are we constantly being told that after 30 years the debt will be written off? Do we expect many graduates to never earn enough to pay all of the debt off? If so, then having the fees so high is pointless as they won’t be paid.

Myth 5 – Tuition fees aren’t fair

Aha, a second ‘myth’ that people opposing the new system actually use in their objections. Gradutes, on average, earn at least £100,000 more in their lifetimes than non graduates and so, the argument goes, the graduates should pay towards this benefit. A reasonable point.

However, MPs (including David Cameron himself) have extended their defence of this ‘myth’ to say that the average taxpayer shouldn’t have to pay towards other people going to university as they receive no direct benefit. Wait, so the average person who didn’t go to university gains no direct benefit at all from training future generations of doctors, teachers, nurses? That seems unlikely.

Furthermore, a great deal of noise has been made about the economic benefits of universities. A more highly skilled workforce, as well as the benefit from universities themselves, are vital to the success of the country as a whole, not just for the graduates themselves.

Even if we accept that non-graduates shouldn’t pay towards people going to university there is a problem with the argument. We have already been told that graduates earn considerably more over their lifetime. This means that they will pay considerably more income tax in the first place.

So, a potential university student is considering going to university. They have to put in between 3 and 7 years of hard work and live on grants, loans and part time jobs in this time. They do well, graduate and get a high paying job…but then part of those higher wages have to pay off the tuition fees and part of those extra earnings are taken away with income and other taxes. University doesn’t look quite so tempting now does it? But we’re told that the new proposal shouldn’t affect whether people go to university and that we need to have so many people going to university (a different argument but one that I’m also sceptical of).

Myth 6 – The poor won’t be able to go to university

Again, not an argument I’ve heard from protestors but let’s consider the defence anyway

Maintenance grants will be increased by about £350. Fair enough, a reasonable point and one that is probably overdue although I’m not sure how much difference £350 will make over the course of a year in affecting whether people go to university or not.

The other defences are “Universities charging more than £6,000 will have to prove they are taking students from disadvanaged backgrounds” and “£150 million will be invested in National Scholarships Schemes to get students from disadvantaged backgrounds into top universities”. Wait, I thought you said higher fees shouldn’t affect whether students from low income families go to university anyway as the fees aren’t paid until they are earning considerable wages? In that case why do you need to get assurances from the universities and put £150 million into scholarships to ensure that these students still go to the best universities?

Myth 7 – Parents can’t afford the fees

A rehashing of Myth 1 and, once more, not an argument I have heard put forward by anybody other than people pointing out why it’s wrong.

Myth 8 – Teaching will get worse

An interesting myth and one that I’ve not heard put so bluntly but a valid concern. The Facts on Fees website says that this is a myth because the government will continue to pay 40% and the universities are on a more financially sustainable footing. I’m not sure how the government’s 40% means teaching will be fine other than I assume it is pointing out that, in theory, universities will have the same amount of funding overall. However, this surely depends on what fees each university will set.

I’ve not heard anything from the government or the opposition saying how much universities would have to charge in order to maintain the same amount of funding. I suspect it will depend largely on the size of each individual university and, as such, cannot be claimed definitively by either side.

Myth 9 – Universities will suffer

A similar point to Myth 8 and the same arguments apply. In addition to those arguments is the point that this will be a completely new situation for universities. The commercial market argument that competition between universities will encourage them to better themselves is not completely unreasonable but poses some interesting questions.

From a purely commercial point of view, the idea student would be one who paid their fees but did no work and didn’t turn up for lessons. As far as the university is concerned this would be money for nothing (or very little). Similarly, the best deal for the student would be to pay as little as possible for a degree with the most perceived value. Teaching quality will be a factor in this but everybody has ideas about which universities are better than others and these aren’t based solely on league tables.

Another problem with applying commercial market values to universities is that this is a completely untried system with UK universities. Even if it does lead to improved quality eventually, the initial chaos from universities trying to find the supply and demand values of different courses at their own university while trying not to be outdone by other universities.

Myth 10 – Labour’s graduate tax would be fairer

The full details of the graduate tax haven’t been fully explained, and if they have I’ve missed them. However, in theory I agree that the graduate tax is unfair as it would be equivalent to an infinite fee, paid forever. As I understand it the graduate tax would also be the same for all graduates whether they earn £250,000 as a city banker or £25,000 as a teacher (an arguably more important job to society).

However, as I discussed in a previous post I believe a rebranded tuition fee/graduate tax hybrid could bring distinct improvements and clarity.

So there we are, a whistle stop tour of the 10 ‘Myths’ that the supporters of the new system think are the main reasons people disapprove. I believe I’ve pointed out why the defences to some, if not all, of these points are flawed and occasionally provided ideas for avoiding them. Any ideas/comments/suggestions welcome.

* Update – I forgot to say at the end that these are simply arguments about the ‘Facts’ provided to support the new system. Disagreeing with these does not necessarily mean that the system is wrong but that the government should be clearer and more honest about the system and their defence of the system.