The Betrayal of England’s Graduates

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.

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About Byrnsweord

I am an Englishman. Constantly striving for the truth and to conserve what is good about England. You can find my on flickr at http://www.flickr.com/people/byrnsweord/ my blog over at byrnsweord.wordpress.com/ and my Twitter account at twitter.com/byrnsweord Byrnsweord is min nama.
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5 Responses to The Betrayal of England’s Graduates

  1. Aris says:

    A brilliant article. I did have many things to say, but you seem to have already covered exactly what I wanted to say.

    The government have already shown that they’re wildly incapable of making sound decisions when it comes to money, so who’s to say what they’ll actually spend their tax money on? I doubt universities would ever see any of it. Have they even spoken to universities in the formulation of this frankly laughable proposal? I doubt it.

    I used to have faith in Vince Cable, but now I don’t know what to think. Degree courses lost their (functional) value a while ago. They’re just a checkmark on an application form, now, which you need if you (can) get a job. Universities keep pushing the value of extra-curricular activities, which I’d say is fundamentally important, along with the ‘away from home’ experience, in personal development. The sad truth is, though, that as a young graduate looking currently looking for a job, companies don’t tend to care about these things, which now seems to be an outlook shared by our government.

    This government is all flapping gums, and no thinking. That is a very sad state of affairs, indeed.

    • Byrnsweord says:

      Interestingly, Cable was dictating this plan to a meeting of leading University Vice-Chancellors and other Higher Education bigwigs. I wonder if he held a Q&A afterwards.

      I somehow doubt it.

  2. Becky says:

    Very well put. I don’t understand why the graduate tax is being hailed as the hero – I personally would not favour being taxed indefinitely! If a university education is a product, why would you want to agree to pay to something you will have to pay for the rest of your life? I’d rather have a quantifiable fee. Has anyone actually worked out how much the graduate tax would cost students in comparison to current student loans?
    What would happen to someone who wanted to live abroad as well? How would they pay the tax?
    And what about maintenance loans? Would students still receive them? Would that mean that debt AND more tax? Or would students not even get the maintenance loans we so desparately need. 2 year degrees are absurd – where is the room to grow and mature and grasp the subject? When would a dissertation be done? I certainly did not have the skills in year 2 to do a dissertation. And what about if there was no maintenance loan, students struggle enough to fit in work around their studies for a 3 or 4 year degree. Your point about us knowing less than other countries is well made as well and the stupid nature of 2 year degrees echos in subjects you so rightly point out, like engineering. It makes you wonder whether the purpose is to get a degree in terms of having something to put on a piece of paper, or to learn valuable skills.

    And you are right, moving out, learning about the real world, living with people – learning about bills etc is so valuable, which is why encouraging students to stay at home is a bad idea. Why should students be encouraged to stay at home? Do we really want students who are too scared to move from their cushy local surroundings once they graduate? Do we want a culture where students don’t mix with people from around the country? Do we really to create a postcode lottery with University education?

    With this new proposal they essentially seem to be saying, with your degree you are given a public service, so you should pay more through higher taxes – whilst it seems that before, we have been told that Universities don’t have enough money to fund all of our resources to teach us- so what is it? Are we paying for what we get (books, teaching etc) or are we paying because somewhere later one we’ll get a better job. It seems the graduate tax is suggesting that you don’t pay for what you actually recieve, you pay for some abstract further ending. I can understand the philosophy behind it – if you benefit more, you should pay more, but surely the fact that those who are higher paid, pay higher income tax, is already this tax to make those who benefit more, pay more?! They need to define their rational – are Universities struggling to pay for the courses and resources, or are we not paying enough for the benefit we receive?

    Who will be monitoring this? How will they judge who pays what? They say it is to make it fairer, and so that students from lower income backgrounds aren’t put off from coming – well I’m sorry but I’d be put off from ever going to uni if I was told I’d have to pay an un-defined amount of tax for the rest of my life – it’d be better to work my way up the career ladder and not have that tax, than to go to uni and have an indefinite tax levied upon me. It’s like going to buy a piece of cake – except you aren’t told the cost of the cake up front, you don’t actually pay for the ingredients, you just have to pay for it forever, depending on how full you feel later on. Doesn’t quite add up does it? You’d much rather know the full cost up front and plan your life out, and thus how to pay for it. The graduate tax would just add another cloud over graduates’ heads. Right now we have a cloud, but we know that eventually it will be gone, can you imagine having that cloud forever!?

    Your point about where will the money go is very well made – what about the deficit between when students graduate and when they eventually have a job to start being taxed on, where will universities get their money from then?

    Just another example of the lib dems having a pretty smile that covers up the poison that they hide. ‘We’ll get rid of fees (*quietly* by introducing a worse system)’

  3. Aris says:

    I concur. Epic comment. Start a blog. Do it now.

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