Fairness and loans

October 4, 2012

The feature "Red alert" ( September) considered the financial model underpinning the new tuition fees regime but questions must also be asked about "fairness" and the political sustainability of the new system.

Ministers are of course broadly right - it is fairer and more progressive for the least well-off graduates to pay the least or nothing at all, and the Institute for Fiscal Studies and others have supported that view.

But any state subsidy will ultimately be subjected to the public's assessments of the "deserving" and the "undeserving" poor. In today's political language, this is more likely to be described as being the difference between those who work hard and play by the rules and those who do not work hard and play the system. Into this debate comes the hardening of attitudes to benefits recipients reported in the British Social Attitudes Survey - as a society we seem to be less tolerant of those receiving benefits (or subsidies) than we used to be.

So those graduates who end up not having to pay back the costs of their tuition may be the most deserving of subsidy but the public may not agree. Worse, taxpayers may see this as taking support away from those who work hard and end up in good but not spectacularly well-paying graduate jobs such as teaching or nursing. Will the public tolerate subsidising those who are not playing by the rules?

The hard-working families of the future may ask why they are paying when others are not. The welfare state principle of universalism would require more, or at least some, help for such graduates because they are contributing and following the rules. In turn, this would legitimise more help for the less well-off. It suggests that the sustainability of the current system may need to be considered through more than economic or financial assessments.

Andy Westwood, Chief executive, GuildHE

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