The Moral Case Against Tuition Fees

Maria Vint advocates on behalf of free education.

All of us should view education as an investment, not a right”

My eyes nearly fell out of my head as my heart sunk upon reading this as the conclusive point in an article published last week in this very publication. A bit ill-phrased coming from somebody who is sitting pretty in one of the finest universities in Britain… My blood boiled as I contemplated that without the means to pay for an education, is one no longer worthy of it? It is exactly this kind of thought that condemns society to eternal division, corruption and inequality.

True, In recent years Scotland and the rest of the UK have gone in different directions regarding tuition fee policy. The SNP abolished all student tuition payments and capped fees (paying them on behalf of Scottish students) upon coming to power in 2007. Meanwhile Conservative-Liberal UK Government Coalition almost tripled tuition fees to a maximum of £9,000 per annum across the rest of the UK in 2012 and this year, the maximum has been raised to £9,250, with future increases becoming evident. A Not surprisingly, graduates leaving English and Welsh universities last year possessed an almost stunning average debt of up to £44,000, compared with the average £16,200 faced by those who graduated five years earlier.

A huge problem with this is that according to modelling carried out by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, around 70 per cent of students who left university last year are expected never to finish repaying their loans, – greatly impeding upon the individual’s chance of getting a mortgage or ever owning their own home. For those lacking family funds to fall back on, taking on this debt is a big decision.

It is undeniable that university is expensive – fees, books and accommodation aside living costs all add up. And this most definitely does impact upon the incentive that drives people to make this huge lifestyle change, and invest such extensive money and time in their education. The Does Cost Matter? Report produced by the National Education Opportunities Network (and supported by the University and College Union) found that the attempts of widening access programmes to solve the prevalent problem of poorer students being deterred from university may be stymied by  increased tuition fees. The report also showed that cost is one of the most important factors for prospective students, with students from disadvantaged backgrounds often choosing to study at an institution closer to home, and perhaps also taking on part time work to cover expenses. Economics seem to trump education.

It is evident therefore that the situation UK-wide is appalling and I deem UK government attitude towards university students with regards to fees since 2012 as myopic and lacking in empathy. A key function of government should be to invest in future generations, and shifting this massive debt onto the backs of individuals is not the way to do that.

I find this behaviour much more “reckless and irresponsible” than the SNP’s tuition fee policy which ultimately opens up Scottish Universities for Scotland’s students and majorly cuts the debt afterwards. Although sadly this policy is not implemented UK wide, I believe it rather ignorant to dismiss the democratic will of the Scottish people, accusing the country of moral poorness as its citizens rely upon “somebody else” rather than “taking responsibility” for themselves. I would like to here point out that that ‘somebody else’ is in fact a democratically elected government who believe that “access should be based on the ability to learn not on the ability to pay and who protect fairer access to education.

Looking at the policies the Conservatives have imposed over the last few years, I am by no means as proud of them as my colleague states himself to be and I believe the real moral question lies not in the lack of responsibility taken by Scottish students but in the normalisation of the commodification of rights. I firmly believe that education is a right and that my  comparatively easy access is a privilege.