Kemper: Remember, remember the facts of reform

The fifth of November came five days late to London this year.

There were no 36 barrels of gunpowder involved, but the 50,000 students who marched on Millbank Tower last Wednesday did manage to keep a fire lit long enough for the New York Times to put it on Thursday’s front page. The conflagration reached the pages of this newspaper when Lukas Slothuus published an article condemning “HIGHER EDUCATION DEMOLITION” (Nov. 12) in his native England.

So what’s all the fuss about? Well, it would seem that higher education in England is under assault on two fronts. First, on Oct. 22, Chancellor Osborne announced a 40 percent cut in non-research government funding for British higher education, from $11 billion to $6.6 billion. Second, last week the government raised the cap on tuition for British universities from $4,843 to $14,530 a year. If every university raises its tuition to the limit, British public universities would tie America’s as the most expensive in the world.

Slothuus is then perhaps justifiably concerned. Calling the new system “stagnant, exploitative and blatantly unfair,” he claims that the cost will deter students from poor backgrounds from coming to top universities that already favor the affluent. He points out Britain already lags its peers in the OECD in spending on higher education. Not only are the fires and smashed glass justified, but this should prove the beginning of the “first British student movement for decades.”

But before we run to the barricades, let’s look at the actual proposal. If it passes then, yes, new university students could see their tuition bills tripling. But they will not actually have to pay anything more. In fact, until they graduate and are making more than $33,904 a year, they pay nothing. Even then, they will only pay 9 percent of their income past that level. So students making $34,000 would pay $8.64 a year for their university education. If — after 30 years — they cannot pay off their debts, then the government cancels them. In effect, only those who can afford to will pay for university.

Slothuus complains that elite universities are already packed with well-heeled students. Why should they pay only $4,843? If Yale gets to charge those who can afford its $49,800 a year, where’s the injustice in allowing Oxford the option of charging a quarter of that?

But it gets even better. Until the students pay off their bill, government loans cover the difference. So let’s do some math. As of 2009, 1.96 million Brits, or 45 percent of young people, enter universities. Of those, 960,000 qualify for government loans; 80 percent (or 768,000) take them. If you multiply that last number by the maximum possible tuition increase, $9,687, then the government will be paying universities over $7.4 billion a year in loans. That’s more than twice as much as the $3.4 billion the government’s slashing.

And that’s before including the increased revenues from those students who can pay. Should all 1.6 million native British students pay just three quarters the increase, then the universities will see a net windfall of $11.6 billion, or more than all the former government teaching grants combined.

So government support for universities will increase, funding will increase and only those students who can afford to will have to pay — best of all, the universities will have total control over the new revenues, for which they have long been clamoring. Just imagine: university revenue streams will actually reflect the quality of the product they’re offering.

I can see why the students protested. Although property damage is inexcusable and juvenile, I myself participated in a riot over a giant multicolored inflatable ball just last year. I understand we are at an excitable age and would be loath to turn down the opportunity for a good march (and front-page newspaper photos).

That said; let’s not confuse broken glass for poor policy. The coalition government has proposed a well-crafted measure that tactfully shifts the burden for university education from the public to the private sector. Slothuus is right — Britain does lag behind the OECD in funding higher education. But the primary shortfall is not with the government; it’s with the private sector. Whereas support from the private sector constitutes 2 percent of American GDP, in Britain that figure is only 0.6 percent.

The proposal is truly bipartisan. Not in the American sense — where a bill becomes bipartisan when internal kickback deals are cut — but because the policy actually addresses the needs of the Tories, who want to cut costs, and the Liberal Democrats, who want to protect poor university students from exclusion.

As Congress hurtles towards extending tax cuts for those who make more than $200,000 a year, perhaps we could learn something from the British compromise. As Yale continues to make students on financial aid pay $3,000 a year out of pocket, perhaps we would do well to take a leaf out of the Brits’ book: Let them pay later, when their dream-job salary is sufficiently large to cover it, instead of now, when they could instead use their time to study and fully partake in Yale’s considerable academic and extracurricular offerings.

Or, I suppose, we could bash the Tories and run pictures of pint-sized fires on our front pages. Either way.

Nicolas Kemper is a senior in Pierson College and a former Production and Design Editor for the News.

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