Wednesday, October 21, 2020
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George Maggs: Free university education is immoral

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Socialism and its disciples on the left have an impressive ability to generate fundamentally unjust economic and social policies and to repackage them so as to appear, at least at first glance, to be both principled and compassionate.

The knack is to provide easy answers to difficult questions. NHS overburdened? We’ll spend more on it. Terrorist incident? We’ll provide more police officers. Teachers stressed? We’ll give them a pay rise. And if you refuse to call for these things too, you must be an evil Tory out to hurt the poor and disabled.

What those on the left never seem to accept, or perhaps even to contemplate, is that for every action or intervention, there are consequences – with both economic and moral implications.

One important question which has received a lot of coverage of late is: How should we pay for or universities?

The answer provided by Jeremy Corbyn, which perhaps more than anything else elevated him to the status of messiah amongst idealistic students, was that they should be funded, ‘for free’, by the State. What could be more selfless and kind-hearted than giving students a university education without burdening them with debt and anxiety?

But this simplicity conceals the complications. Were such a policy ever implemented, there would of course be consequences, and these consequences would be particularly damaging for the least well-off in society. Having the State provide an average of £45,000 in fees and maintenance grants to the almost 40 per cent of school leavers who attend university could only ever be achieved through raising taxes on everyone, regardless of whether they attended university or not.

This cannot be considered a morally defensible position. It cannot be right to force the majority of the population who have not received a university education (many of whom will be low earners from working class backgrounds) to subsidise the tuition and living standards of predominantly middle class students. Particularly as graduates go on to earn an average of £9,500 more per year than non-graduates.

As a PhD student myself, I find it difficult to conceive of a policy with less ethical legitimacy than one that forces others to fund my access to a service, which then hands me a direct competitive advantage over them in the jobs market. Yet many students have managed to convince themselves that they are somehow morally superior for calling for the less well-off to fund their own education.

What Corbyn’s policy effectively amounts to is a £45,000 bribe to students and middle class families who expect their children to study at degree level. This partly explains why Labour did so well in university towns like Canterbury, while the Conservatives won in blue collar areas like Mansfield.

According to a report released on Wednesday by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, high earners repay more in interest payments than low earning graduates. Moreover, the report makes clear that, “proposals for reducing student fees tend to hit the public finances while benefiting high earners the most”. Calling for their abolition is hardly therefore the ‘progressive’ position which many on the left profess to occupy.

Indeed, the current debate around tuition is yet another example of socialism giving credence to selfish human emotion in the guise of altruism, distorting moral arguments to advance personal gain.

Rather than give in to the clamour to provide ‘free’ tuition and submitting to the collective petulance of many in younger generations, the government should instead make the moral case for individual responsibility. People must be exposed to the reality that wealth and resources are finite – there is no such thing as a free lunch. If you want something, it is incumbent upon to you to earn it, not for someone else to provide it for you.

And we should be promoting this reality in our education system too. It is only through harnessing personal enterprise and ambition that things are achieved and progress is made. Our universities should be incubators for competition and innovation. Asking them to subsist on state handouts with fewer incentives to provide the courses students wish to take should be an anathema to intellectuals everywhere.

Our escalating culture of entitlement, fuelled by leftist idealism and an overreach of the welfare state, is already leaving the young unprepared for the world of work and depriving our citizens of drive and aspiration. Providing more services for ‘free’ would only exacerbate such self-indulgence and further pander to unrealistic expectations. It would be anything but compassionate.

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George Maggs
George Maggs
George Maggs is a Community Co-ordinator in Bristol North West and a final year PhD researcher

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