A graduate can expect to earn on average £125,000 more in a lifetime than someone without a degree. For a student of medicine that figure is over £400,000. Put another way, a person entering the workforce at 18 can expect to earn 27.4% less for an extra hour worked than a graduate can.
On Wednesday I watched the battalion of 3000 or so student protesters march the Strand, all armed to the teeth with festival wristbands and threatening rhetoric. They were flanked on all sides by police helicopters and cavalry, at whom they threw words of apocalyptic warning rather than the customary glass bottles. Amongst the well-meaning quixotic freshmen and serial ‘anarchists’ (who confusingly seem to want bigger government) I spied members of that most prolific militant special interest group – UKUncut. Fancying themselves as vigilant X-Men of the working class, they are in fact a violently oppressive gang, who gleefully flout democracy in favour of what they feel is right ‘in their hearts’.
The event was organised by the ‘National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts’ (NCAFC) who want (amongst their many impracticable demands) higher education to be free for all. Their contention is that it is a human right and consequently immoral to put a price on such a thing. They say the government has ‘failed on every level to understand the intrinsic value of higher education to society as a whole’ and that any form of market association can only lead to ‘low quality courses at bloated prices’. Within the same paragraph they claim the proposals imply a ‘one size fits all mentality’ but also that they are ‘not uniform across the disciplines'… disproportionately affecting ‘the London School of Economics for example, that consistently produces world class graduates’. How to oppose such wisdom…
Why should something that so clearly provides such enormous individual returns be free? We can agree that higher education is a right. But I’m sure we can also agree that food is a right, yet we see few calls for the abolition of its competitive supply. We can also agree that there exist wider ‘external’ benefits to society, not taken into account by the individuals educated. But then we’re just arguing about the right numbers, the correct balance between individual and societal contribution, not the principle. Until recently 1/3 of the total cost was borne by the student, the rest by taxpayers. It would be hard to conjure a more regressive policy than the income tax funded ‘free’ university education the NCAFC demand. For a start many more non-graduates than graduates contribute to income tax revenues (presently only around 18% of the population have degrees), and we’ve established you’re more likely to be poor without a degree. Secondly it is ‘horizontally inequitable’: if a graduate earns enough to pay £20,000 more in income tax (than he otherwise would) and £5,000 of that contributes to university costs (so £15,000 go to public services everyone benefits from), a non-graduate also paying £20,000 in tax is paying significantly more for the same public services the graduate enjoys
The impossibly high cost of acquiring the information required to make appropriate health care decisions and the sudden unexpected nature of these needs make it a good candidate for public provision. Equally a child is likely to be ill-equipped with the necessaries to make good education decisions. This is not so with university students.
Provided applicants are fully informed, it IS fair that graduates pay for most of the costs of their education when they end up earning the money to do so. Why should a taxpaying policeman be subject to such exorbitance for our extraordinary privilege?