Today, Vince Cable (yes, the eccentric chap on the far left that you never thought would make a decision that even remotely affected you) has announced the (already) hugely controversial Graduate Tax. I have no doubt that much more reaction is yet to come, but from an English perspective, the situation is ridiculous and outrageous.
The key concept behind Cable’s ‘thinking’ is the supposedly noble aim of ‘fairness’. Fairness? For whom? What exactly is fair about English graduates being taxed an unspecified quantity of their earnings presumably – but hopefully not realistically- for their lifetime whilst their Scottish counterparts will continue to be subsidised?
The lack of coherent thought in the formulation of this idea is mind-boggling. If, as the BBC claims,
students [will be] paying for their studies through the tax system, rather than through subsidised loans
… how are they going to exist whilst they are studying? Will they be forced to revert to the days of abject poverty? This is a retrograde step indeed: the worsening of the student’s lot in an effort to appropriate a ‘balance’.
This diminishing of the experience of English University life as we know it is furthered by other aspects of this balderdash. The BBC notes that while the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills was delivering his preliminary musings on the matter, he placed emphasis on
“… promoting two-year degrees, more students living at home and more flexible, part-time courses.”
Fundamentally wrong on all counts. Needless to say, the entire (and invaluable) experience of living away from home, dealing with the realities of landlords and electricity companies and living with other people in the context of a private residence is priceless. This part of the proposal jeopardises the constant learning about the realities of life that undergraduates now undertake; a part of the University experience that cannot have a price tag awkwardly slapped on it. Furthermore, two year degrees mean a less thorough understanding of the subject matter. How would this work for Engineering students? Would we suddenly be turning out less capable graduates than our international competitors?
It is the value of the graduate to society that is another aspect of Higher Education that the creators of this half-baked scheme appear to be entirely ignorant of. Mr Cable was quick to note that
“The reality is we are going to have to develop a model in which the balance of funding for higher education in England combines less public support and more private investment from those who benefit most from it.”
Does he not realise the benefit to the country of well-educated individuals who have had the benefit of an academic environment and plentiful access to leading thinkers and researchers? Does he assume that our scientists, our teachers and our engineers work solely for their own benefit? Such pitiful arrogance! Worryingly, he is not alone, as the meaningless National Union of Students appear to concur…
Graduate contributions should be based on actual earnings in the real world, the union says. NUS president Aaron Porter said: “A progressive graduate tax would be a signal of a just society, where people who benefit more pay more.”
One wonders if perhaps the graduates of England should form a pressure group or quango or (heaven forbid) a Union in which they constantly apply pressure to public figures to recognise their contribution to the nation at large. The selfish lot.
Or perhaps it would be easier to capitulate and emigrate. The Telegraph‘s Ian Cowie notes rightly in his article from earlier today that
“‘See the world, earn more and pay less tax’ would be a tempting prospect if the UK is set for a double-dip recession and emerging markets’ economies continue to expand rapidly. It is no exaggeration to say the new tax could precipitate a ‘brain drain’ as some of our brightest graduates up sticks and seek their fortunes overseas.
A recent survey found 55 per cent of students fear they will be unable to find any work when they leave university. Soaring student debt and economic decline already provide good reasons for the young to consider emigration; a graduate tax could prove the tipping point.”
Cowie is precisely correct. A good deal of recently-qualified graduates have opted to travel around the world instead of loitering in unemployed purgatory, and some have found job options are preferable abroad, particularly in other English-speaking countries.
In short, this entire sorry business financialises Universities still further than the illustrious Peter Mandelson, whose suggestion that students should be ‘more like customers’ was met with noted and justifiable cynicism. What about education? The entire principle appears to have a subliminal anti-education message. The message that this tax sends out is entirely, fundamentally wrong: work hard, get grades… and pay high price for endeavour and intellect. What next, an Intelligence Levy? We already suffer from an anti-aspirational culture (one arguably influenced by the last Government): this merely worsens the situation.
This proposal is not balanced in any way, shape or form. It does not allow for a decent standard of student living while studying, but on the other hand, undermines the education undergraduates receive by placing an overt emphasis on the monetary value of their degree rather than the intrinsic value of the education itself. Also: what of the disparity within and between Universities? Will a high-earning Engineering graduate pay more than a lower-paid trainee teacher with a History degree, even if they’ve graduated from the same University? This is a skewed notion of fairness indeed.
It is also not the best deal for the Universities: where will the money for this tax actually go? How will it be fairly distributed? Will the graduate essentially pay a monthly or yearly fee directly to their University? If so, we are looking at a logistical nightmare. If not, it is unlikely that there will be any ‘fairness’ in the system at all: it will be more money in the pocket of the Treasury. What is the logic, therefore, in English graduates paying money supposedly benefiting the institution that gave them the gift of learning that will be spent on the roads, or a local council not local to them, or on foreign aid? A ludicrous- and ironically, more expensive- solution to a problem that can be better resolved in more moderate and more reasonable ways.
Make no mistake: in its present form, this ‘Graduate Tax’ fundamentally undermines the nation of England, its undergraduates, its graduates, its Universities and its people.