Opinion UK

Debate: Should tuition fees be reduced because of lockdown?

Faced with the prospect of another online term, students have again focused their efforts on forcing a government reduction in tuition fees seen by many as extortionate, especially in the current circumstances. As petitions again circulate, Orlaith Lindsay and Calum Isaacs present the cases for and against a reduction.

Not the best solution: Calum Isaacs

Here’s a game. I’ve got a load of very large cakes. Each contender comes up and eats as much of the cake as they can. Each time, I will personally eat the remaining proportion of cake. The grand aim of eating all this cake is to demonstrate the functioning of the student loan system.

Students are handed a figurative large cake along with their degree certificate with the distinct flavour of ‘student debt’. Undergraduates start eating the debt only once they are earning above £26,500 a year, and the amount that is paid is a proportion of the amount earned over that threshold. Each year, the cake grows in size, even bigger than it started as (interest).

Now, considering that the average graduate across all ages earns only £34,000 a year, it’s obvious that the majority of people won’t eat all their debt. The government only expects 25% of current students to do so. And those students are the ones with the biggest appetite, i.e. the ones who end up earning the most. 

This is where I come in. A fee cut for this year is like me, for this round of the game, cutting off some of the cake, some of that debt, before you start. I, as the government, have to eat these trimmings. If, after university, you end up with a relatively low income, you will never make it to that bit of the cake anyway, but a higher earner would have eaten at least some of those trimmings, and the highest earners (that top 25%) would have eaten all of them. So, the effect of the policy change is simply to add to my plate the trimmings of the richest…

This is the key point. A fee cut is a redistribution of money from the future highest earners of this cohort of students to the government debt of the future. And the government debt of the future  (already not helped by the lasting cost of COVID lockdowns) will be paid for with money that could be spent on the public services of the future and the least well-off.

Now, it could be argued that I’ve got completely the wrong end of the stick here. Think about university as a service that you pay for. The lockdown means we are receiving a service below our expectations and so should not pay the amount we expected to pay, especially for highly practical courses. I think this has some merit to it. Though as a fresher, I did make the choice not to defer, knowing I was accepting the risk of this happening, this is definitely not true of others.

Even if you accept this line of argument though, I don’t think tuition fee cuts are the best prescription. At least let’s do something a bit less regressive like increasing the income threshold that repayment starts from. (This is, in a sense, delaying when cake-eating begins so that anyone who was even eating a tiny amount will end up eating less, paying less.) I think building a social media movement around the slogan “Increase the repayment threshold!” is a task I’ll leave to someone else, though.

However, I don’t think any change like this is necessarily the right call anyway. Though I can’t be sure of the scale of savings this lockdown allows universities to make, I can’t imagine it’s too major. Professors still need to be paid. It is also worth noting the income stream from rent money (at least at Oxford) is no more. So there is still a large cost that needs to be paid by somebody, why shouldn’t that be the highest earners of the 2040s? Even ignoring that point, why reduce a nice progressive income-earner for the government and public services, focussed on the most well-off? It seems odd that people who widely believe we should increase taxes on the rich want to make a policy change that is basically a tax reduction for the rich.

In essence, a fee reduction probably won’t save you very much, and if it will, then you will be someone with more appetite for that cake than others.

Yet another example of government ignoring students: Orlaith Lindsay

A new year, a new lockdown. And with it again, the call for a tuition fee reduction – this time with more weight behind it than ever. A petition calling for fees to be lowered to £3000 has, at time of writing, nearly 500,000 signatures and counting. 

With the cancellation once again of A Level and GCSE exams, the government has acknowledged the inadequacy of online learning when compared to face to face teaching. Why, then, are university students again forgotten, left to fend for themselves? In a year where many of us had zero face to face hours in MT and now, in all likelihood, face the same again in HT, there is little argument – even amongst those staunch defenders of tuition fees as a whole – to be had for this year’s value for money as equal to previous.  The TT20 survey found 87% of students had a “very strong” preference for face to face learning as opposed to the glitches and technical issues we face over Zoom, Teams, and – shudder – in online labs, showing that student satisfaction is also down (easily evident from any student Facebook page!)

Estranged from our usual working environment, and with limited access to academic materials following the closure of the majority of libraries, meeting academic standards is harder than ever. Never mind those of us trapped in a home situation non-conducive to work and still required to stay at home (thanks Merton’s no-desk-no-problem policy). This of course disproportionately affects working class students, for whom student loan debt is likely a larger worry anyway. To be forced to pay the same fees as previous years for such limited resources is, quite frankly, a slap in the face to anyone who saw our universities as radical proponents of education rather than businesses. 

The blame cannot be placed entirely on institutions and certainly in most cases you cannot fault university staff. Instead culpability lies with the government, who very rarely remember to mention university students in their announcements. Over the summer both the Office for Students and the Department for Education were adamant that students would see “blended learning” and it was on this basis that many of us either returned to or arrived in Oxford for the first time. This is of course now impossible, and it is hard not to feel cheated. The government’s continued insistence that any student seeking a refund should follow the traditional route of contacting their Higher Education Provider and then the regulator grows in ridiculousness each time they repeat it. Problems with the quality of education fall not between individual students and institutions but across the board, as we face our third lockdown this calendar year. 

The mental health implications alone of students facing a higher workload (many exams were moved from last summer to this autumn, and coursework has been introduced to replace exams in a number of cases) with less support should be enough to prove that this year is, as we have heard, unprecedented. Why then must all applications for a fee reduction or rebate follow the precedent? The government’s response to a Petitions Committee report published in July on the impact of the pandemic on students, which called for both a new system to apply for refunds, and new state funding for universities in order to pay for potential refunds, ignores these two key demands. This wilful dismissal is insulting.

It’s clear that something has to change. To deny that this year is harder, and the learning environment poorer than anticipated, is to bury your head in the sand. The average student graduating from an English university in 2020 left with £40,000 worth of debt, while the mental health crisis spiralling across those same universities is only likely to worsen as social and welfare support disappears under lockdown. At the same time, however, a number of universities (Nottingham, Cambridge, Essex, Bristol) have removed or reduced their bursary support. The number of petitions circulating certainly make clear students aren’t ready to let this go. But will the government listen? We must hope so.