Friday, January 21, 2011

Okay Then, Let's Talk About Students And Fees And Taxation

There is, as readers in the UK will be aware, currently an enormous amount of debate about the issue of funding of students in University; unfortunately, much of it is reduced to being debate and nothing else, as the coalition government seems intent on putting through legislation to remove funding, and make students have to pay for their courses (despite recent protests on the streets and pledges from members of the coalition, during the election campaign, to oppose such measures), and so it looks horribly like a fait accompli. And I think it is a very bad thing indeed. For reasons I shall explain.

History lesson, in which the edges of things go blurry and wibbly: in the olden days, if you were lucky or smart (or both) enough to get good enough grades to go to college, you could get your fees paid to do so, and also a grant to enable you to buy books and the like (okay, so much of it probably went on beer and chips, but let's not pretend that all money allocated to a specific purpose necessarily goes where it should: if that was the case, UK taxpayers would have been aware of a 'propping up the banks' aspect of their taxation system in the past few years). After a while, this became means-tested, so that if you were academic but from a family of limited income, you'd get a full grant, or if you came from a family of millionaires, you'd get no grant on the basis that your folks could afford to pay for your rent and food and the like. Or, if you were somewhere in the middle, there was a sliding scale, with the grant expected to be made up by parental contribution.

If you're wondering about my personal experience of this - and all too often people seem keen to look at the anecdotal or personal at the expense of the overall picture, so let's get this clear now - I fell somewhere in the middle; I got a partial grant, which my parents were expected to top up, and my fees were paid. This was probably fair, though at the time I railed against the system a bit, as my local council decided, in the first term of my second year, to go on strike, so I didn't get my grant cheque through until two days after term had finished, so I had a very thin term financially (who, you ask? Sheffield City Council, I reply). Anyway, my parents had to make some sacrifices to support me, and I had to use some money I'd inherited from my paternal grandmother too, but that's how it was for me. And, I suspect, for many others. How do I feel about this? I'll get to that in a moment.

Anyway, back onto the history lesson: during the last decade or so, the idea of the state (through tax revenue) paying for young people to go to college has gradually been chipped away at (oddly enough, coinciding with successive governments striving to get increasing numbers of 18-year-olds into higher education; a cynical man would suggest that they were doing so to keep them off the unemployment totals, but that's a discussion for another time). And the current governmental thinking, in line with the fact that the UK economy was as badly hit by the recent economic crisis (read: the markets being shocked at the impact of market forces),is that students should have to pay for the courses themselves. The maximum amount being bandied around is Ł9K per year, for three years, so Ł27K.

Leaving aside for a moment the fact that - no, in fact, let's not: the fact is, it is a complete and utter disgrace that politicians, many of whom reaped the benefit of the old system, should put through legislation to stop current and future generations of young people having the same opportunities and advantages they had. If any of them had any trace of self-awareness, they'd offer to pay back the money they received in fees and grants, adjusted for the RPI and inflation since that time. As it is, they're all right Jack, thanks for the free money, and now it's time to pull the ladder up. Appalling.

One argument which is currently, constantly, and I believe disingenuously, made is that it's unfair for the bulk of the population, many of whom will never earn as much as a graduate will, to be expected to pay for the education of someone else in this way. Which sounds spurious to me - I don't know about you, but paying in a bit to ensure there are a lot of smarter people, be they in factories or hospital wards, sounds like a pretty good deal to me. Insurance, if you will.

But - and this is the key thing referred to in the title of this post, and one which I believe the coalition government is either unaware of (unlikely, I'm not the blinding-insight-merchant I wish to be) or wilfully obscuring (far more likely, as it raises awkward questions about taxation in general as a system) - what actually happens is that graduates pay tax in a variety of forms, which pays for the education system. And the NHS. And the police. And defence. And government. And, in a strange and confusing recursive loop, the system of taxation itself.

You hear a lot of people - especially politicians on the stump - talk about "hard-working families". And that phrase is very probably true, many people with families are run ragged just trying to keep everything going on a day-to-day basis, let alone on a financial and employmental level, but a lurking and rarely-spoken truth is that families are a complete pain in terms of their effect on public services: kids need hospitals to be born in, parents need support in the initial years and vaccinations to be given, and then there are schools to be attended, street lighting to make sure the kids don't get knocked down by cars, books in schools and libraries to teach the little blighters to read, and then when they hit the teen years, they may even need assistance from the emergency services after they've been out binge-drinking... okay, I exaggerate, but not much. Families may indeed be hard-working (I was an often-indolent child, so I suspect the adjective often applies more to the parents than the children, at least since the days of child labour ended), but they don't half create a drain on the public purse.

As someone with no kids, do I feel the same way about paying for these families as I apparently should about funding people to go to college? No, of course I don't, because I'm not a moron. I pay council tax for the lighting of streets I don't walk down, I pay tax which the NHS spends on helping smokers and drinkers and the morbidly obsese and those born with mental and physical difficulties, and no, I don't feel resentment about that in the slightest. Because I'm able to recognise the fact that paying tax into public services is a great big insurance policy - one day, I may have kids who need vaccinations and schools and lollipop ladies, or one day I might fall over in the street and need an ambulance, and the same goes for all of us.

The argument that 'ordinary people' shouldn't play a part in funding other people to go to college strikes me as a totally fallacious one, for three further reasons:

1) There are very few people in the UK who haven't benefitted in some way from a service which has been supplied as a result of taxation. You may have private healthcare and have been educated at a fee-paying school, but I'll wager you've walked on a pavement, travelled on a road, or walked down a street which has been illuminated by street lights. Show me the person who has never benefitted from a publicly-funded service in their life, and I will show you a millionaire recluse, or a liar.

2) If you're going to argue that people shouldn't have to pay tax for causes which they disagree with, you're asking for trouble. Many people disgree with military action in Iraq, and they'll presumably be entitled to reduced taxation as they don't have to pay the money that goes towards the MoD budget. If governments are going to start suggesting that you shouldn't pay tax on things which you don't like or don't personally benefit from (I think that this is generally known as 'hypothecation'), they'll see a lot of people objecting to a lot of things (I'd start with the fact that the 20 or so bars within the Palace of Westminster are subsidised by taxpayers, but - again - that's a topic for another time).

3) Are the government seriously trying to pretend that 'ordinary hardworking families' will see the benefits of this scheme? They'll still have to pay the same amount of tax (because there's no way that the government will say "Well, the money you're paying to fund colleges isn't needed any more, here's Ł[n] back"). You're not going to get a refund cheque, so let's not deceive ourselves that the outcome of the "I don't see why I should have to pay for..." debate will actually mean more money in your pocket.

In summary, I have no problem at all with paying tax on things I don't - or, to be more accurate, don't currently - use, because a lot of public services are there for other people. Which is fine. I don't mind paying to ensure that there are hospitals and schools and police and libraries and public transport and museums and street lights and roads and so on, but what I do mind is when people pretend that there isn't a need to pay out for these things, just because they're not using them.

And, of course, I mind when politicians try to simplify the debate and obfuscate the fact that most people who pay tax (and that includes graduates, past present and future) are, in some way, subsidising people they don't know who are doing things they won't necessarily feel the immediate benefit from.

It's society, or community: a group of people pulling together, or getting in place the means to pull together, to ensure opportunities for as many people as much as possible, due to sacrifice being spread across the group. Pulling together like this in an organised fashion is, I suspect, what separates us from the animals.

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The Factory said...
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The Factory said...

Cameron has performed the rather difficult trick of politicising a whole generation. You see, all you need to get people interested in politics again is to totally screw them. I imagine the ultimate beneficiary will be Miliband the younger.