Melissa vs Matthew: Who should pay for university tuition fees?

Matthew and Melissa

Last week Matthew and Melissa discussed trigger warnings – whether there should be a warning for content that may disturb people so they can choose whether or not to view/read/discuss the issue at hand.

Melissa was in favour, Matthew against. It was a close call with 55% of those who voted agreeing with Melissa and 45% with Matthew.

This week the debate is over tuition fees. Should people have to pay for for university education or not?

Melissa says:

University education should be free for all! Of course it should. It’s obvious, isn’t it? Free degrees: as lovely and necessary as mother’s milk and spotted dick. Who could possibly argue against that?


A university degree is incredibly expensive. A true privilege. Someone has to pay. And that someone should be the person who benefits most from it.

I went to Oxford, purveyor of the most expensive degrees in the country. Oxford estimates it costs £16000 to teach one undergraduate for one year, so £9000 still only represents a contribution. Being ‘elderly’, however, I went at a time when all my tuition fees were paid for me. Moreover, I got a full grant. This meant that I, already an incredibly privileged member of a tiny elite, had that privilege bought me by the rest of society. The homeless man clutching his can of heavily taxed lager outside my college gates. The cleaner who came in to spruce up my room each day – the beautiful room I lived in rent-free, right in the centre of Oxford. The women who prepared my meals and cleaned up after me. Their taxes paid for my absurdly expensive education.

And I didn’t even do anything with that education. Never had a job in my life. Nor do I intend to.  Those cleaners and dinner ladies wasted their hard-earned cash. If I had my way they’d have been taxed less and maybe spent more on their own kids instead. Surely that would be fairer?

Tuition fees are problematic, I realise. They do discourage people. The very language used around this debate terrifies. Of course it’s scary to begin your working life with a huge debt. I’d refer to it instead as a graduate tax. As the current system stands, you only need start paying when you earn more than £25000 a year. If you earn £30000, say, then you’ll pay back £450 a year. That doesn’t sound quite so scary. And anything you haven’t paid back after thirty years gets wiped. Currently it’s predicted that only 17% of graduates, the very highest earning, will pay back the full amount they borrowed. See? Really not scary at all.  Tuition fees need better PR.

Scottish universities are eager to boast they will never charge a Scot tuition fees. Entirely laudable, you might think, until you realise how much effort they expend luring English and EU students to their institutions, without whose fees they’d collapse. Moreover, Scottish universities do precious little to help or encourage poorer students – they simply can’t afford to. Roughly twice as many places at English universities go to pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds, compared to Scotland – 18.2 and 9.5% respectively. If you want to help the poor receive a decent education and pursue a recognised career path, abolishing tuition fees is likely to make it harder.

The whole of society benefits from our wonderful health service, a social security system, clean water, clean air, decent transport. It’s right and proper these things be funded by general taxation. But a university degree concentrates status, money and power on to an already privileged elite. You may wish that weren’t so. Certainly I do. But abolishing tuition fees will not help.

Last year a Cambridge undergraduate burned a £20 note in front of a homeless man, while his loathsome friends shrieked encouragement. If tuition fees were abolished, if grants were reinstated, you and I would have provided that £20 note. Explain to me again how that’s fair.

Matthew says:

Universities are an endemic part of society; they’re not for everyone – we’re not all academic sorts that fit into a university culture – but they’re an integral part of our education system. We all benefit from a healthy, well-rounded education system through an educated workforce – and, like the rest of our education system, universities should be entirely free; now and in the future for those who attend.

There are some arguments in favour of tuition fees that Mrs Todd will cover in her own inimitable style, but the arguments against these fees are – I intend to argue – stronger.

At the most fundamental level, tuition fees lead directly to an explosion of student debt, which can often last for an entire lifetime and influences decisions as to whether or not they are willing to accept such a burden. When university degrees are required qualifications for many professions – lawyer, social worker, nurse, doctor, etc – and when the three year process is an exciting one for people with a naturally academic mindset, saddling them with a long term debt is a crushing prospect.

Related to that, unlimited public access of universities is currently languishing in the long grass and promotes so much inequality. Disadvantaged people have limited recourse to any additional help, having instead to choose between less expensive institutions, ones close to home in order to minimise living costs, or just not go at all: a choice made according to means, not ability. The government has had the audacity to suggest that because the old maintenance grants had been inadequate to meet living costs, the new loans will mean ‘more money in your pocket.’ But it’s borrowed money and will add an estimated £12,500 to the cost of a university education.  Higher income families are on the whole able to shield students and graduates from exorbitant levels of debt. For students from poorer families, their individual exposure to debt is greater and potentially more damaging, continuing to disadvantage them as they attempt to establish themselves.

The fees are, at their heart, a regressive levy, forcing the less well off to pay a disproportionate part of their income. Contrary to the propaganda by successive governments, the fees regime is unfair and certainly not without risk. It’s not a requirement to take out a loan to pay for the tuition fee; most universities offer a discount of 2% to 5% for fees paid upfront, £1300 or more. If families don’t wish to pay upfront, they can bank the loan, earn interest on it, and wait to pay it off when their child starts earning above the repayment level.

According to one calculation, those with a starting salary of £30,000 will repay a whopping £98,000 on a loan of £34,500, while those on who start at £50,000, will pay £64,000; a £34,000 differential dramatically favouring differing earners. According to another, the real cost of a three-year degree course, repaid over 30 years including interest, could be as much as £166,150 for a graduate with a starting salary of £26,000.

The entire process does not save taxpayers very much – if anything at all. A growing body of evidence has shown that the loan system is unsustainable. Already by 2014, it was apparent that the level of fee repayment won’t meet government estimates of long-term income, and there was a shortfall in Business Department estimates. In 2010 the level of defaults was estimated at 28%.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies now predicts that 73% will not repay in full, compared to 23% under the previous fee regime. About £90bn of the overall £200bn in student loans will remain unpaid by 2042, according to the latest projections. A report by the Higher Education Commission in 2014 is damning: ‘The current system fails to meet our test of financial sustainability and further work needs to be undertaken to arrive at a better higher education funding model.’

David Willetts, the minister responsible for introducing the high fees regime, has himself admitted that the total of unpaid student debt in 2046-47 will reach £1000 billion; £330 billion in today’s money. By this reckoning, English student debt will be more than 2.5 times as large, relative to the UK economy, as the 1 trillion dollars in unpaid American student debt that exists today. Who will have to deal with this future crisis? Today’s graduates. Society as a whole, and as it endures through time, benefits from the financial investment carried from one generation to the next.

Education is not a luxury; it is an absolute necessity, and by saddling people who choose to go to university with depressing levels of debt is a breach of the trust we place in the education system to be free to those who want to pursue it – not matter what the type of education they choose to go into.

University tuition fees: I agree with

Not sure