THE LAST DITCH An Englishman returned after twenty years abroad blogs about liberty in Britain
A thought for Sunday
An old profession vs a former profession

Call them fees. Call them taxes. Call them bananas, if you like.

Scrap tuition fees? Yes we have | John Hemming | Comment is free |

Had this proposed new system applied when I was 17, I doubt I would have been the first member of my family to go to university. As my life has turned out, that would probably have been a bad economic decision, but I could never have known that. At that age, given my background, I didn't even know my career - as a partner in a City law firm - existed. The only lawyer I knew was a shiny-trousered specimen who practised family and criminal law on the high street of my impoverished Northern town. I doubt he earned as much as the skilled tradesmen in my family. I thought I was going to be him.

Had I chosen a building trades apprenticeship instead of a redbrick law degree, I would have thought my earning prospects just as good. Deploying even my untutored intelligence into small business, I might actually have earned as much or more as I have. I could certainly have been confident of earning as much as I expected to earn from a degree-enabled career. The prospect of paying an extra 10% (over and above already progressive taxation) on earnings above 21k would therefore have been a deciding factor.

Bear in mind I was considering a vocational degree in law, not archaeology or some other such impoverished, noble field. As a non-graduate entrepreneur the opportunities so to structure my life as to minimise other taxation would have been greater. Without the benefit of a degree in petty quibbling, I doubt if I would have worried quite so much as commenters to John Hemming's linked piece whether the cost was labelled "loan repayment," "graduate contribution" or "graduate tax". To the young, intelligent but unindoctrinated me, it would just have been money I would get to work for and not keep.

My own life might have been more or less economically rich. I don't, and can't know. I do know however, that I would have created far fewer jobs, touched far fewer business lives and paid far less tax. I might personally have done better or worse. The wider economy would have done worse, because my talents would have been wasted. That is why this proposal is so very wrong.

It may seem harsh, but the best way to finance higher education is for students (and/or their families) to pay full economic fees; especially if that harshness is mitigated (as in the United States) by privately funded scholarships for the intelligent poor, as well as student loans. One of the best-educated men I ever worked with was the Harvard Law School grad son of a Polish-American janitor. He got the real Ivy League deal on a scholarship. No taxpayers were harmed in the making of his high-powered career. I got a half-arsed redbrick education from a shabby bunch of Marxists who spent three years trying to persuade me that ambition was immoral.

Don't try telling either of us that European-style socialism extends opportunity to ordinary boys and girls

My view has nothing to do, however, with the envious, Vince Cable-ish, nastiness informing the current debate. Nor has it very much to do with the (highly uncertain) economic returns to students as individuals of most (non-Harvard Law) degree courses. It's about allowing the market to do the one thing it's good at; pricing economic choices. Of course, I hope lots of them would choose to study archaeology, Mandarin Chinese and other noble things that don't lead to high earnings. Nor would I mind if they made ignoble, economically-stupid choices like "media studies". I would just like them to make their choice as rationally as possible, in the full understanding that they can't expect others to pay for it.

Call them fees, call them taxes, call them bananas if you like. It's not what they are called, but the effect they have on our life-choices that matters. Of course no mechanism can price the wonderful uneconomic benefits to an individual of higher education. Of course people should (and would) study stuff for the love of studying it. Economic benefits, however, can and should be priced. The bill should ultimately be delivered to the person who chooses to buy, and he or she should keep the benefits, if any, of the purchase.

Since the average British graduate only earns 75,000 pounds more in a lifetime than the average non-graduate, I suspect (as the Socialists never take into account) that the universities would face more pressure on their pricing from the market than from any government.