Tony Blair's shameful secrets 1

November 29, 2002

Where security is not the issue, secrecy generally betokens shame ("Secret Blair bid to boost top-up cause", THES , November 22) - and that would be wholly appropriate for a Labour prime minister discussing the introduction of top-up fees with a carefully selected band of university high earners.

There is not a shred of moral justification for top-up fees or a graduate tax. Where graduate earnings reach the claimed "earnings premium", the share recovered by the government through income tax overwhelms the Treasury's original input. This is not, therefore, an argument about what is due from the graduate, but what can be extracted in place of any genuine government investment.

Yet the government's sudden urgency in this matter cannot be due entirely to a concern for the financial state of higher education. Why are they so worried now? Timing: the "degree = earning premium" line is a ruse with a rapidly diminishing shelf life. The figures used to support it are already several years old. In fact, a significant proportion of the non-graduate workforce has overtaken the earning potential of the majority of graduates. Plumbers, plasterers, police officers, firefighters, Tube drivers, estate agents, taxi drivers and hairdressers already earn more than teachers in schools, colleges and universities. Once we "achieve" the magic 50 per cent participation aim, the degree will be edging towards negative equity: simply not worth the time or the debt.

Even further education will not long escape top-up fees, as the other fudge of widening access means a significant proportion of "higher education teaching" being carried out by the local college or sixth form.

The government wants - and the country needs - the doctor, the scientist, the professor and the teacher. It wants world-class research and the fruits of that research. However, that takes money and the old set-up calls for additional taxes to maintain and build the system that would deliver these benefits. It is not the student, nor even the student's parents, seeking a free lunch here: that aim belongs, squarely, to the government.

Andrew J. Morgan
University of Wales

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