Why should a postman pay for your university education?

Saturday, December 11, 2010
Proponents of graduate fees and loans justify loading, say, teachers with £50k of debt at the beginning of their careers as fair because the alternative - an income tax funded system - is unfair:

"Why should a postman pay for your university education?"

Paxman asked this question of a student on Newsnight. Perhaps he was expecting a good answer but he didn't get one. A good response is to say:

"Why should a postman pay for the cancer treatment of this middle class woman?"

Unless you are free market libertarian of the most extreme sort, you can surely see there's a good answer to this question.

In fact, unlike that middle class woman's cancer treatment, the postman does get an obvious direct benefit from living in a society in which people are university educated, such as the qualified teachers who teach his children, for example. And, more importantly, his own children will have the opportunity to go to university without being saddled with huge debt.

Being a low paid worker, he of course contributes only a small amount towards getting these benefits (while being no less entitled to them than anyone else). The vast bulk of the cost is met be the better off, proportional to their income.

A university-educated public also gives the rich and big business an educated workforce to exploit. Yet big businesses such as Top Shop, while happily trading here and enjoying the benefits of our educated workforce, won't pay tax here - won't contribute anything at all towards educating that workforce. Perhaps they should? The Green's policy is that big business should be paying for university education. That's another, interesting alternative to current proposals.

Of course the simplest solution to the problem of funding university education is just to raise income tax (which would instantly, simply and economically produce massive revenue, unlike the proposed system which is not only unfair but horribly complex, administratively costly, and won't produce much in the short term, perhaps if ever). The Lib Dems, I seem to remember, used to have a policy of putting a penny on the pound - a one percent tax increase - for education. Yet they now say there is "no alternative" to the current plans. A tax increase is now considered unthinkable. Why? Because the rich would pay the same - the same proportion of their income as everyone else, take the same "pain" as everyone else, and the Tories cannot have that.

Stephen Law
Former postman.