I’ll lay my cards on the table, I am at heart a low tax Tory but I recognise that there does need to be taxation and public spending. My contention is that where possible taxation should be orientated towards things that we want to discourage and reduced in areas we want to encourage and stimulate.
We are in an increasingly competitive economic environment and we a commercial sector which can stand up to the fast growth economies of the world, we need entrepreneurs, business creators and highly skilled employees. I cannot see that any of these would be encouraged by a graduate tax.
Our university sector is struggling to make the books balance, the massive increase in the sector made the grant funded model I grew up with untenable. There is no doubt that the fear of significant debt will put some bright and talented young people off of going to university while children from wealthy families can have their places subsidised by the parents. I would hate think that we have created a system where university selection is at some level dictated by wealth rather than aptitude.
We push so many people towards university because we still have not created a valued and effective technical /vocational educational stream. Over the last few decades we have pushed more and more young people to a university education whether appropriate or not and then charged them for the privilege.
When I joined the army it was felt that “proper” officers went straight to Sandhurst and did the non-graduate “Long Course”. This was a non-university vocational course yet still carried with it a huge amount of kudos and opened doors when you left the forces. You also got paid while you were there. Now it is almost unheard of for army officers to be non-graduates, somehow we have completely devalued non-university education no matter how excellent it was, that is a retrograde step.
I’m not even sure how a graduate tax would work. If the tax payments end once the cost of the course has been covered then it is the same as a student loan, if it continues throughout the graduate’s working life then it is just another income tax. Indeed an income tax focused on the very pool of people we should be encouraging and supporting and reinforcing the impression that graduates are different and somehow better or more valuable than everyone else.
How do we square this particular circle? I recommend that we have a smaller and more focused and better funded university sector which produced graduates who are genuinely world class. Running in parallel to this we also need a vocational education system that is respected, taken seriously and supported by the industries that will benefit from its graduates.