Paying for higher education


According to Shadow Universities Secretary David Willets, the government's new £165 million package of student support will disproportionately benefit middle-class students and do little to help the poor.

As The Times says, the reforms are meant to encourage more working class students into higher education by providing a "means-tested student maintenance grant, which covers living costs but not fees" and which "will be available to students whose parents earn up to £60,000. Previously the cap was £39,305." Willets says that the most affluent families will gain £150m from the scheme, while those from poorer families will only gain £15m.

I can't say whether Willets' sums are right, but I wouldn't be at all surprised if they were. State-financed universities have always represented a particularly perverse kind of redistribution of wealth – from the working poor to the unproductive offspring of the middle and upper classes. Essentially, people on low incomes who didn't go to university (and whose children probably won't either) pay taxes so that better-off kids can lounge around for three years at someone else's expense. The costs of university do not fall only the beneficiaries of higher education, then, but on taxpayers at large.

I'd like to see British higher education given a substantial overhaul. First of all, universities should be freed from state control and allowed to charge fees as they see fit, but helped (through the tax system) to establish endowment funds to support poorer students. 

To meet any gaps in funding, the government-backed student loans system could be expanded, with loans gradually paid back as students become taxpayers. Such a system would ensure that anyone able to go to university could afford to go to university – but knowing they would eventually be footing the bill, young people would be encouraged to work hard and pursue useful degrees that would boost their future earning power. Turning students into paying customers would also make them demand a higher standard of education than they currently settle for.

Introducing these reforms would certainly not be easy, but the benefits would justify the effort.