Tuition fees blindness

by Stephen Tall on June 2, 2016

Two things frustrate me about the debate, bubbling up again, about university tuition fees.

First, those who decry the current system and then call for a graduate tax, given that the current system is de facto a graduate tax. Actually it’s a better deal than a grad tax would likely be, as any remaining debts are wiped clear after 30 years.

The second frustration is the prominence the debate has. Of course ensuring ready access to university for all those who wish to study for a degree matters greatly. But when we talk about those following an academic route, we are talking about a minority of young people:

In fact, most young people do not follow an academic route after age 16. Two thirds of young people in their early 20s do not have a degree. Indeed, in England in 2013/14, of a total population of 1,285,800 16 and 17 year-olds, only 47 per cent of young people (601,500 people) aged 16 and 17 started A-Levels, whereas 53 per cent (684,300) did not do so.

The majority of young people, those who don’t progress to higher education, are in the main ‘overlooked and left behind’.

Yes, it’s perfectly possible both to argue against tuition fees and also to argue for a better deal for those young people not in HE. But that doesn’t often happen. And as politics is the art of choosing, it would be refreshing to hear an unambiguous prioritisation of policies which support the ‘many not the few’.

So let’s ditch the sterile debate about tuition fees – it’s clear the present arrangement is working okay for 18 year-olds, including those from disadvantaged backgrounds – and instead focus on getting post-16 education right for the 53 per cent of 16 year-olds who don’t even start A-levels.

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