Brian McNair: Why graduate tax makes sense for Scotland, too
I WENT to university in 1977. I wasn't the first in a thousand generations, as Neil Kinnock once described his own experience, because my dad had gone to uni in the 1950s, and his two brothers a decade later. They were the sons of Clyde shipyard workers, and I had their example to follow.
They were the first in their Govan street, though, pushed into post-school study by an ambitious and far-sighted mother who understood the importance of education in giving her children options beyond welding or boiler-making. Her own husband, my grandfather, died in his thirties of some unnamed industrial disease, and she didn't want that for her boys. For them, she knew, university was the pathway to another kind of life.
I, too, was the beneficiary of that insight, because when the time came for me to make decisions about the future, university wasn't just a possibility; it was a no-brainer. Higher education was learned behaviour, handed down from father to son.
This matters because, at a time when some commentators are again questioning the wisdom of expecting 50 per cent of our young people to go on to college or university, we should pause to imagine how transformative it was for my dad's generation to take those pioneering steps. With very few exceptions, working-class boys were destined to go from school at the age of 15 into hard manual labour. They would toil for 40 years or more in shipyards or factories or mines, before a brief retirement and the grave. As for the girls, well, get thee to a typing pool or a silently screaming life of domestic servitude.
My seemingly seamless progress from school to university happened only because I had learned from example that it was possible. More than that, by the 1970s it was expected of a reasonably bright son or daughter of working-class parents. And so it should remain. Higher education isn't for everyone, but never again should it be a privilege of the few. On that, surely, we can agree.
Education for the masses costs money, however. In 1977, I enjoyed free university education, and I remain hugely grateful for that. I received no grant to cover my living costs because both my parents were employed, but neither were there any fees to pay. In those days, only about 13 per cent of the UK population went to university; an improvement on the 5 per cent who went in the 1950s, but still a small minority, and, for that reason, affordable from general taxation without too much strain.
By the 2000s, participation in further and higher education was above 40 per cent, and heading for 50. Welcome progress, yes, but the question of who paid was now unavoidable. Self-evidently, when nearly half the population is accessing a service previously used by only one-tenth, the issue of cost has to be addressed. Put simply: why should low-paid shop workers pay through their taxes for my son, or your daughter, to get a law degree? The UK government opted for student fees, financed by loans repaid over decades. Scotland's politicians rejected fees, a principled and locally popular approach that might have been sustainable (though many doubted it) had the recession never happened. As it is, public spending is under unprecedented pressure and something now has to be done to bolster the funding of Scotland's colleges and universities, if they are to keep pace with standards in the rest of the UK and overseas. We simply cannot educate anything like 50 per cent of the population to that level without new, secure sources of funding.
Last week, Vince Cable mooted an end to student fees south of the Border, and their replacement with a graduate tax. The Browne review of higher education funding will be making its recommendations soon, but a graduate tax seems to be the preferred option for the coalition, for most of the Labour leadership contenders and for the National Union Of Students. It should be on the agenda for Scotland, too.
If we agree mass access to university education can no longer be free, a supplementary tax on the higher graduate incomes that result from it looks like the fairest option. As an income tax, and unlike fees repaid from loans, it is, by definition, progressive. A GP on 100,000 per annum will pay more back for his or her medical degree than a social worker on 25k. If university does tend to produce higher salaries over a lifetime, the highest will pay most.
If adopted north of the Border on the same basis as in the south, it would create a level playing field for access and funding, as opposed to the currently anomalous position where their students pay fees and ours don't. As Westminster pressure grows to reform the Barnett formula in a way that will almost certainly reduce Scotland's share of the UK public-spending cake, this approach would be both diplomatic and financially prudent. It might also help preserve the four-year Scottish degree, which must also now be vulnerable. If English students are paying for two-year degrees, as seems likely to happen, can the Scots reasonably expect to continue to get their four-year honours degrees for free?
There are other ways to fund universities, of course. The Americans are good at attracting donations from wealthy alumni. But too much dependence on the whims and favours of wealthy individuals undermines academic freedom. External research income from the private and public sectors is key, and has long been a priority, even of humanities and arts departments in Scottish universities. But it can't cover all the teaching costs of an average BA programme. Too much emphasis on research also risks devaluing the teaching part of the academic contract, and short-changing students.
Overseas fees help, too, and will presumably remain, even if home students eventually pay for their degrees through taxes. But too much dependence on this source can distort academic priorities and make universities vulnerable to unforeseeable economic and political turbulence. A graduate tax wouldn't replace these sources of funding, all of which are aggressively pursued by Scottish universities already. But it would give our higher education a secure, stable and fair foundation for the 21st century.
l Brian McNair is professor of journalism and communication at the University of Strathclyde.
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