& opinion

According to the Greek philosopher Aristotle, "the roots of education are bitter, but the fruit is sweet." This appears to be the only maxim the government can preach in order to pacify a nation divided on the issue of who should pay for tuition fees. The government recently gave universities leverage to charge more tuition fees than they currently do, with the amount initially capped at 3000. Universities will be required to justify charging the full amount, and will be judged on meeting predetermined conditions of access for students from less-privileged backgrounds. Full grants of up to 1000 will be available to families who earn under 10,000 a year, partial grants for families earning between 10,000 and 20,000, and no assistance for those earning above 20,000. Repayment of the fees will commence in the form of graduate tax as soon as a salary threshold of 15,000 is reached.

Naturally, students are livid at the endorsement of the scheme by education secretary Charles Clarke, who is a former NUS president. The burden has been lifted from the shoulders of parents, but the idea of their children beginning their working lives with enormous debt is disconcerting. Advocates of the scheme rely on evidence that graduates earn more over a lifetime than non-graduates, hence they can afford to pay for their education. There is also resentment felt by supporters of the scheme, because it is deemed unfair for non-university educated, working-class England to pay for snotty middle-class education. They agree that if graduates can afford their education, then it is only natural that the taxed public is relieved of payment.

Some arguments in favour of topup fees can be viewed as contradictory. If graduates earn more in a lifetime, then the tax system will obviously catch them out. The need for graduate tax suggests a flawed tax system in this context, which is no fault of the graduate. If the present criteria of taxation cannot differentiate between the "educated" and the "uneducated", the disparity in terms of pay must be negligible. 15,000 cannot be judged to be successful salary for graduates, since that much can be earned without a university degree. Such a low salary threshold would support the belief that university education is not necessarily for financial gain, but personal development. In this instance, the government is thoroughly justified in charging students, because the benefits are personal and not for society at large.

However, the government states that skilled university graduates are integral to the well-being of the economy. Although not every graduate becomes a high earner, their degrees put them in a position to command good salaries. And high earners (many of which will be graduates) are cherished by the economy. The idea that the uneducated should be absolved of paying for the education of others, is akin to an age-old fallacy that education does not benefit the many, but profits the few that partake in it. In modern society, the welfare of individuals is tied together through public services. The haves (graduates) contribute in taxes towards the health, transport and education systems, that haves and have-nots alike enjoy.

In an increasingly capitalist world, the economy is the collection tray by which the taxed congregation is judged in the international synod of nations. It is one of the few fabrics of the modern world every nation seeks to preserve and develop, with the aim of enhancing the living standards of its citizens. Every resource is geared toward the strengthening of the economy. Even the number of sick-leaves is measured in terms of how much the economy loses. Once again, Aristotle claimed that, "the educated differ from the uneducated as much as the living from the dead." As far as the British government is concerned, the economy needs to be nourished. This is best served by an educated, enlightened and healthy population.

There are scores of people who do not fall ill and need to see doctors as regularly as other members of the community. Yet their health is paid for by the healthy as well, via taxes. This is where the comparison between the role of a healthy population and an educated population in the sustenance of an economy begins. In a society where public services are not commodified, there is no justification for beginning that commodification with students. The health system is under great strain and crumbling daily, so it could be the next public service where users of the service are required to pay directly for the pleasure. If that becomes the case, then England will be a country where the public pay directly for everything they use, including public services.

The fact remains that post-war Britain has never commodified its public services, and this tuition fees debacle is the start of a downward spiral for public services. Sir William Beveridge, pioneer of the welfare state, must be turning in his grave.