Ryan Shorthouse: Student fee protesters are opposing opportunities for all

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THOUSANDS of talented young people are in the process of applying to university.

Yet we have still seen protesters barking that Government reforms are making higher education too expensive and out of reach for those from less advantaged backgrounds. Sadly and unforgivably, they are in danger of putting people off from going.

These protesters think they are on the side of the disadvantaged against a ruthless Government. But, tragically, it is they who are the real regressives.

Students don’t pay tuition fees until they graduate and pay only a small amount from their salary each month when they are earning above £21,000 a year: so protesters are simply misleading people when they say university is becoming unaffordable. And what the protesters are calling for – lower fees – would actually mean taking from the poor to give to the privileged. The Government has shifted the source of the bulk of funding of universities on to graduates, away from general taxpayers. This is fair: graduates typically earn much more than non-graduates, at least £160,000 over their lifetime. They’ve also made graduate contributions dependent on what somebody earns. So this new system means people who are more advantaged in society pay more than those who aren’t. Surely this is what progressives believe in?

Not the objectors. They want lower fees. And as they are arguing graduates shouldn’t pay more, they can’t logically support a graduate tax. So this means, to maintain funding per student, direct funding from the state would have to increase.

These students, many of whom will become affluent members of society, are demanding that general taxpayers, many of whom are poor and struggling, pay more for them to go to university.

Taxpayers will either face higher taxes or a cut in spending elsewhere – spending which could be used on supporting those who are genuinely disadvantaged, through higher benefits or tax credits. Then the protesters say that the Government’s reforms are crippling universities. That’s strange: Universities UK has calculated that the HE sector will see a 10 per cent increase in their funding by 2014. That’s because universities are charging fees, on average, much higher than the roughly £7,000 per year required to compensate for the loss in direct state funding.

The call for lower fees, in the current climate, would starve universities of money, potentially meaning today’s students have fewer courses to choose from and a university experience which is lower in quality. When there are real, devastating cuts happening across the public sector and to people’s benefits, universities are seeing a rise in their revenue.

Either student objectors are unaware of this, or they are selfishly ignoring it as other less articulate voices struggle to convey their suffering from cuts to for example tax credits, childcare and youth clubs.

Still, they carry on protesting, confusing the very sensible message that young people need not worry about affording to go to university, because a loan covers the full cost of tuition whatever the price and there is nothing to pay upfront.

Now, some say the Government haven’t done enough to explain how benign the new system is for students, including the fact that though tuition fees have increased, the repayments are more manageable as graduates pay less per month than the old system.

But it’s hard to get this message across when all around there are protesters and organisations saying how awful the higher fees are for young people from deprived backgrounds.

How sad it will be if some young people from poorer backgrounds, without sources of suitable information, believe this misinformation and avoid university as a result, thereby reducing social mobility.

Protesters and protesting organisations – from the NUS to the University and College Union – should be ashamed of themselves. Instead of encouraging access to this life-enhancing activity, they unjustifiably scare people away.

With higher fees, there is an issue not of whether university is affordable, but whether it represents value for money.

Overwhelmingly, it is a sound investment: on average, the salary premium is much higher than the debt with interest. But some courses may not be worth the higher fee in regards to returns from employment. If, armed with appropriate information, students avoid these courses, and departments and institutions become financially unviable, this is no bad thing.

If protesters really wanted to fight for social justice, they would stop campaigning for more public money to be spent on people who generally will be more privileged in life. Instead, they would fight for more public money to go into what really enhances life chances and boosts access to higher education: education attainment before the age of 18. And, judging by last week’s league table results in Yorkshire, that needs to begin with primary schools. For, if pupils do not learn basic skills from the outset, they will never have a chance – regardless of the funding system – of going to university.