Has David Willetts really thought through his pro-tuition fees argument?

I really am starting to wonder if the Tories get economics at all (on a related note, see my latest article on the Social Liberal Forum). In a fascinatingly revealing intemperate rant to the Guardian, David Willetts has described students as a “burden on the taxpayer” and that “the so-called debt [students] have is more like an obligation to pay higher income tax”.

Let’s leave to one side for one moment the idea that investment in HE is little more than a “burden” (so much for the learning economy), or the fact that Willetts is the author of, um, The Pinch: How the Baby Boomers Took Their Children’s Future – And How They Can Give it Back. What is fascinating here is that he seems to think that it is news to people that tuition fees are a tax on students. That’s what the Lib Dems have been saying consistently since they were introduced in 1997!

If we are finally now allowed to start calling a spade a spade without being accused of scaremongering, then great. If tuition fees are a tax, they aren’t a particularly progressive one. People who land into profitable jobs in the private sector will comfortably pay off their fees quickly and subsequently cheaply. Meanwhile, people who choose to do more socially responsible jobs end up paying off the fee for years. In short, the less of a “burden” you are to society, the more you pay. How can Willett’s support that logic?

Since, despite Willetts’ ill-judged comments, it is unlikely the Tories will accept the argument that the best way to pay for higher education is to simply raise the higher rate of income tax itself, it is perhaps time the Lib Dems bit the bullet and accepted that if scrapping the regressive tuition fee system is ever to be affordable we will have to accept the case for a graduate tax. That would ensure that all graduates earning above a certain amount would make a contribution throughout their working lives with the ones who gain the most benefit making the greatest contribution. No longer would graduates start off in life with a mountain of debt to pay off and the wider benefits of the higher education system to society would be better reflected.

In retrospect I fear that my generation botched the chance to change HE funding for the better in the late 90s, getting distracted as we did by tuition fees at the expense of maintenance. Is there a chance we might learn from that mistake now?


  1. In short, the less of a “burden” you are to society, the more you pay.

    Can you explain why doing something which has a high value placed on it in the market is, as a matter of definition, less socially responsible than doing something with a lower market value? Because if it isn’t, your argument dissolves.

    Let’s take a really obvious counter-example: GPs and nurses. Clearly, the salary differential is typically rather high. You imply that GPs are less socially responsible than nurses. On what basis?

  2. I will happily accept that I was being overly simplistic there – it was 5am after all – but you appear to have confused “society” with “market”.

    The market does not determine what is socially useful – indeed it is pretty bad at doing that. That isn’t to say there aren’t sound economic reasons for why doctors earn more than nurses, but it is equally absurd to assert that nurses are by definition a greater burden on the basis that the market determines that they cost the taxpayer less.

    Fundamentally, all this talk of who is a burden to whom is balls and I shouldn’t have indulged it. I suggest you resist the temptation as well.

  3. Oh, I’m resisting the temptation fiercely. But I’m not confusing the market with society. I’m simply questioning the idea that there is a radical disjuncture between the two, because the concept of ‘social utility’ seems to get even thinner if you exclude the idea that the market can aggregate, to some extent, our views on the matter.

  4. “Can we please please please implement it as a contractual requirement so students can’t sod off abroad and not pay?”

    It already is. I’ve had to sign a piece of paper which says that I won’t work abroad longer than x months without informing Student Finance England, otherwise I will be subject to some sort of unnamed penalty. How easily/readily that contract is enforced is a different matter…

  5. @James
    “In retrospect I fear that my generation botched the chance to change HE funding for the better in the late 90s…”

    Would you mind expanding on this a bit by explaining what actions could have been taken during this time for HE funding? Just curious of your ideas here. Thanks!

  6. Just what I said, Scott. We focused on tuition fees at the expense of maintenance and the debate has been along those lines ever since. I don’t think either side of the debate has ever really engaged with access in any meaningful way.

  7. I feel that there has to be a sliding scale when it comes to tuition fees. If you are doing a degree course that will allow you to easily pay off your debt once in employment, then you should be prepared to subsidise those whose degrees mean they will end up contributing more to society in general.

    Theo Grezny
    Webmaster @ Walkfit

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