In a quote to the Sunday Times, Labour’s Shadow Minister for Universities, Science and Skills, Liam Byrne, has again advocated a graduate tax to replace tuition fees.
Though Labour’s policy on higher education funding has been marked by incoherence and indecision, we can be reasonably sure that this announcement, coming as it does less than four months from the General Election, reflects some sort of consensus in the Shadow Cabinet.
The Labour Campaign for Education (LCFE) believes that it speaks volumes about Labour’s internal democracy that policy announcements are made in the Sunday papers with no reference to any of the party’s policy-making structures.
Nevertheless, Labour’s recognition of the need to announce a policy is a testament to the struggles of student movement, which delivered lasting damage to the Liberal Democrats in 2010-11, and has kept the issue of tuition fees on the agenda throughout the life of this government. Further, it represents Labour coming under political pressure to break with the disastrous system of fees and loans introduced by the Blair government.
A graduate tax may mitigate some of the market mechanisms introduced into education via the removal of public funding, and in this sense it is a step forward. However, we believe that it remains deeply inadequate and we echo the calls from the wider student movement to continue the fight for free education.
A graduate tax is targeted only at those who decided to continue their education to a university level, over and above their existing tax liabilities – and regardless of whether their university degree leads to increased earnings or not.
We believe that it is not only individual graduates who benefit from education, but society as a whole. Few people would like to imagine a society without doctors, nurses, linguists, writers, actors, artists or scientists – that is because we all benefit from these things even if we did not study them ourselves.
We are often told by neoliberals that education is important because it benefits business; they rarely follow through the logic that it should be business – the rich – that pay for it! We do not believe that the primary purpose of education is to create a skilled workforce better able to generate profits for the bosses, but in so far as education does this, it should be the bosses who pay most for it through taxing their wealth and income.
More fundamentally, the graduate tax undermines universalism – the idea that higher education is a right for all, rather than a privilege for a few. By conceding the need for a special graduate tax to pay for higher education, we embrace the idea that it is a privilege and should be rationed accordingly.
We believe that the graduate tax would be better called a “learning tax” because, boiled down to its essentials, it says that the fruits of learning are not for everyone and those who do not want to pay additional taxation for the rest of their lives for it should know their place.
But we will not know our place. We reject the graduate tax because we reject this vision of education and of society. We fight for free education because we want a society in which education and learning are valued in themselves, and because just as much as freedom from want, it is freedom from ignorance and a narrowness of vision which are fundamental prerequisites for human liberation.