Yesterday, I recall seeing a headline about Andy Burnham pledging to eliminate tuition fees entirely. Bold, I thought, but loony. Burnham must know that’s a fiscal nightmare. Which, as it turns out, he does: he has actually promised to replace the current tuition fees scheme with a “graduate tax”. I laughed out loud – this is the lamest political move of the decade.
Okay, let’s look at the current system for a start. If you pursue post-secondary education, you are obliged to pay upwards of £9k per year for the privilege – but at a payback rate of 9% per year until you’ve paid off the total amount, and even then only on amounts you earn over £21k per year. So essentially this “millstone of debt” that Burnham has described you only ever have to pay back, in small amounts at a time, once you earn over a certain threshold. Only in Britain, and I mean this as a compliment to a generous and wonderful nation, could having to pay back a loan in very small increments, interest free if you never achieve a salary over the £21k threshold, be compared with crippling debt. In case you were wondering what the American system is for comparison, here it is: if you want to go to university in the States, most schools charge around £60k a year, and if you can’t get a scholarship to fund that, there is only one alternative: take out what amounts to a commercial loan. The repayments kick in regardless of what you earn in your post-graduate career and are very much not interest free, regardless of whether you ever make a penny your entire life.
Actually, given there are no specifics to Burnham’s plan, it’s entirely possible, hypothetically speaking of course, that students could be worse off under his “graduate tax”. See, the thing is, the only reason the current system isn’t called a graduate tax is a matter of how the Treasury accounts for things year on year. In other words, it is already essentially a graduate tax scheme, at least from the perspective of the student. So Andy Burnham trying to sell the youth a new tuition fees scheme that is essentially the old one under a slightly different name, while trying to make out that he is abolishing fees altogether, is disingenuous to say the least. In other words, abolishing tuition fees is a very, very different thing from imposing a graduate tax, something Burnham’s announcement didn’t make entirely clear to say the least.
A BBC article on Andy’s pathetic manoeuvre summed it up beautifully:
“Mr Burnham’s team say the graduate tax will be considered in detail by a new Beveridge-style commission, which would look at who should cover the shortfall of the money needed by universities in the short-term.”
The anti-politics brigade talk a big one about inauthenticity in Westminster and rail against the “elite” as a motif. But Jesus, I’m with them on this one, should they choose to join in: this is Grade A horseshit from Andy, and someone as experienced and politically savvy as he must know it. So why say this crap? Because he’s desperate. He let Corbyn into the contest and it’s going severely pear-shaped on him. Corbyn has promised to eliminate tuition fees and Burnham felt he needed to come back with something that sounded similar but was actually not even remotely the same thing as eliminating tuition fees. This kind of attempted hoodwink forces me to wish Jeremy the best of luck. At least he’s being totally honest and upfront about what he wants to do.