November 26, 2010

More on student fees / riots

What I would have written yesterday were I less angry.

A few other thoughts on the riots

Violent protest has always been a part of direct action. It’s not big or clever, but boy, does it get people’s attention. The problem is that one gets the impression that when these student protests turn violent, it’s because somehow some students think “well, that’s what we do on protests, isn’t it?” and then start smashing things. Violent protest and destruction of property is a huge statement, and as such has to be direct with thought and in the right place. I genuinely don’t think that’s been happening here. People weren’t smashing stuff because they were angry with the government. They were smashing stuff because they were a bit drunk, wanted to smash something, and saw the protest and ‘direct action’ as a good excuse. That is simply not good enough. The bigger the gun, the more carefully it must be aimed, lest you accidentally hit something you didn’t mean to.

Claiming that the rising tuition fees mean that you can’t go to university is, in 99.9% of cases, wrong. Of course, the tuition fees shouldn’t be going up. The fact that it’s taken only 12 years to go from giving students money if they attend university to charging them up to £9000 a year is ridiculous. Students applying to university next year started school when grants still existed! The whole thing is a total travesty.

However.

The fees are not paid upfront, you get a loan for the cost of the fees and that is paid back later. The loan has an effective zero-interest rate, and repayments only kick once you’re earning more than 15k (shortly to be upped to 21k, and then at a flat 9% of income over that figure. I’ve only just started repaying mine, and while it is a loan, effectively it’s more like a tax. Most agree that a Graduate Tax would be a fair alternative to a fees hike, and really, that’s sort of what this is. The problem is that it’s unfair, as rich kids can have mum and dad pay the fees upfront and not have to worry about it.

Nevertheless, no-one is asking parents to stump up 9k a year for their kid to go to university. In fact, this system puts the onus for paying the fees pretty much entirely on the student themselves: there will never be a situation where the student has to make loan repayments and can’t afford them. As such, no-one is actually being prevented from going to university. You want to go do an Arts degree and spend your life eeking out a fun and fulfilling existence as an artist on the minimum wage? That’s fine, you get your fees paid for you and you’ll never pay them back. Unless you become Banksy or something and start making a fortune, and then you will.

The idea of that much debt is scary, and it can put potential students off. And to be frank, if it makes kids think twice about whether to go to university or not, then that’s a good thing I think. An end to the Blairite ideal of “50% of school leaves should go to university” is a good thing. It’s not for everyone and it’s something that people should consider at length before making a choice. But if it’s always been your dream to go to university, the fees hike doesn’t actually make it any harder, and the out of pocket expenses aren’t any greater. The only difference is that you’ll be paying off your loan for a lot longer than the generation before. That should give you pause, but it shouldn’t stop you.


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