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Marcus Booth and Dylan Thomas: The politics of aspiration should mean an end to tuition fees

Picture 17 Dylan Thomas and Marcus Booth were Presidents (respectively) of the Conservative associations at Edinburgh and St Andrews universities from 1999 to 2000. Dylan served in the British Army Intelligence Corps for 6 years seeing active service in Afghanistan and Iraq, he now works in Risk Management. Marcus is a corporate finance lawyer at leading UK law firm and is Chairman of Conservative City Future, having contested Angus at the 2001 general election. They are both on the approved parliamentary candidates' list. They are argue here that tuition fees should be scrapped altogether in order to provide the highly educated workforce that Britain needs for its future prosperity.

Vince Cable's proposals for a Graduate Tax and Lord Browne's review of higher education funding have put the cost of higher education back on the agenda. How we pay for university is one of the great questions of our age. Is university an entitlement to be funded by the state, or should graduates be asked to contribute more?

The coalition seems to be moving towards the latter. Tuition fees were introduced in 1997, tripled in 2004, and are expected to rise to £5,000 over the next few years. The typical student now leaves university with debts in excess of £20,000.

The notion of a free university education apparently should belong to an idyllic past. With record numbers of students we are told that the tax-payer can no longer afford the full cost. The historic deficit bequeathed by the last government only serves to strengthen the case. Graduates will, it is assumed, have to pay more by extending New Labour's tax on learning.

However the figures reveal how close we are to the provision of free university education. The UK spends a little over 1% of GDP on higher education, over 70% of which is government spending in the form of research grants, tuition fee subsidies, and student bursaries. Income from tuition fees, currently set at £3,300 per student, comes to only 0.15% of GDP or approximately £5 billion. This is small change for the government but an increasingly heavy burden for graduates.

We believe that every pound spent by the state on education will have a far greater multiplier effect than the same pound spent on welfare payments to NEETs (not in employment, education or training).

Therefore, tuition fees are not a necessary evil but in fact a result of a failure to prioritise government spending. As if to emphasise this, when tuition fees were introduced, funding per student from 1997 to 2008 fell in real terms and youth unemployment hit record levels under New Labour. Like the rest of the economy New Labour's university 'golden age' was in fact an age leveraged by debt to be repaid by future generations.

The coalition runs the risk of taking us further down the same path with speculation that tuition fees will rise to £5,000. Vice-chancellors are lobbying hard for an increase and university funding cuts only serve to strengthen their case. Already an exercise is underway to sweeten the pill with shorter courses and distance learning. Although a Graduate Tax appears to be off the cards, we seem to be being prepared for something even worse – a hike in New Labour's crude up-front tuition tax. The reality however is that graduates already contribute to the costs of their education by statistically paying more tax and all this whilst income tax in the UK is already uncompetitively high.

It seems logical to us that the good work Michael Gove has put into motion in primary and secondary education through the ‘Free Schools’ should be extended to higher education. Why not allow every University to attain ‘Free’ status, allow them to raise their own capital, reward their own staff, set their own entrance examinations, select the students they so wish and be rewarded through a state financed tuition fees scheme based on results and economic priorities.

This radical approach should be accompanied by a broader overhaul of our tax and training system with generous tax breaks incentivising corporate and individual philanthropy to the Higher Education sector whilst in the wider sector of further education employers should be rewarded for taking on apprentices and interns – training 'on the job' should never again be downplayed.

This is surely the type of ‘investment’ that is needed in order to generate the prosperity and economic growth we require for Britain’s ‘Big Society’. We must have a highly educated and aspirational workforce that will generate the wealth and contribute the income taxes needed to pay down Labour’s debts. We mustn't penalise aspiration or ambition and therefore we believe that extending New Labour's tuition tax makes little economic sense.

Taxes on learning are aggressively regressive. If we are not progressive in the field higher education, history will judge this state of affairs as the failure of a generation who kicked the ladder of opportunity from beneath them. The Conservative party has always been the party of aspiration and social mobility and we need to scrap Labour's tuition tax rather than find more ways of taxing aspiration. If we prioritise correctly, the goodwill of millions will follow.


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