Tuition fees

When I was home in the summer, there were two main topics in the papers, often discussed on alternate pages.

On one side would be an article featuring young people saying that they would be put off going to university if tuition fees went up and they were put in danger of being saddled with long term debt. On the next side would be an article featuring young people bemoaning the fact that they could not get mortgages high enough to pay for the property they wanted – they were unable to saddle themselves with long term debt. This always struck me as odd.

I was lucky – I went to university when there were no tuition fees. I did take out the student loans available to me to cover living expenses and paid them back at the extremely favourable rates offered once I started working.

Whilst it’d be nice if people were not forced to pay tuition fees in future, the key issue not being discussed in the various articles in the UK press is what borrowing options will be available for students. There’s a lot about leaving university in debt, but not much about how that debt is managed.

I can understand why someone might be put off at the thought of leaving university with 50,000UKP of debt. It’s a big sum – but the question is about how that debt is managed. In Britain we have a culture of buying your own property rather than renting or leasing. Taking out a mortgage for a house puts you into masses of debt. This is a socially acceptable debt people are happy to take on and manage.

Tuition fees could also be a socially acceptable debt. What matters is how you’re obliged to pay it back. What I don’t understand from the proposals currently being discussed is how the debt incurred by tuition fees will be managed. If it means paying off a minimal amount over your lifetime via a government loans scheme, who cares what the debt it, as long as it’s perfectly manageable? If there’s no help and people are being forced to take out bank loans at commercial rates, that something quite different.

Student loans had to start being paid back after you earnt more than 15,000UKP, with repayments being made on a sliding scale depending on your salary.

I have one friend who has never earned enough to have to pay back his student loans from the 90s. I was honest and told the student loans people what I was earning and paid mine back fairly quickly. Other people were less honest and paid the minimum amount back over several years after ‘forgetting’ to tell the student loans company when they started earning significantly more than the fifteen grand minimum. The debt was manageable.

So what are the options in terms of borrowing to fund tuition fees? We’ll have to wait for the government to make up its mind on the topic.

I am in favour of a government run loans scheme that will help students from all backgrounds fund their tuition fees. I am dead against the idea of a graduate tax. I think you should pay for your course, not be taxed for the rest of your life and pay potentially many times over the value of your tuition fees. This is grossly unfair. Besides, there is already a graduate tax in place – it’s called income tax. You get a degree, that improves your chances of getting a better job, which earns you more money and means you pay more income tax. Some sort of hypothecation style graduate tax is just not fair.

I would also like to see the current funding dilemma introduce some changes into Britain’s university system. Over the last few years there has been a huge rise in the numbers of people going to university. That’s a great thing in principle, but when I meet people who spent three years doing an eight hour a week ‘degree’ in film studies, you have to wonder if there’s value for money to be found across the current system. Film Studies is doubtless a valid course, but could it not be done in a year rather than three? I expect, with the current funding changes, we’re going to start seeing some rationalisation and quality control, which is a good thing.

All of this is a bit academic – I missed out on tuition fees and don’t have any university age children, so it’s easy for me to pontificate. I do hope, however, that we can get a system that gives value for money, keeps purely academic courses afloat and lets students pay for their course in a manageable way via loans scheme.

That way, people can graduate from university and be able to focus on the usual British conversational topic of what a burden their monthly mortgage payments are.

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