The left’s support for university students is fuelled by political self-interest

The left’s support for university students is fuelled by political self-interest

Why do left-wing politicians want to shower money on privileged members of society?

In general, university students have a higher intellectual ability than non-students, and often come from more desirable socio-economic backgrounds. But leftists can’t do enough for them.

For instance, Jeremy Corbyn in 2017 promised to abolish tuition fees from 2018 onwards. He went on: “I don’t see why those that had the historical misfortune to be at university during the £9,000 period should be burdened excessively compared to those that went before or those that come after. I will deal with it.”

The poor old chap didn’t seem to realise that this would cost almost £100bn. But this figure is dwarfed by the commitment made a week ago by would-be Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders.

Sanders said that he would abolish student debt in America – all $1.6 trillion of it.

The answer to the question posed at the start is very easy. Half of the relevant age group in the UK now goes to university – only slightly less than in the US – and being a graduate has become a key determinant in voting Labour here or Democrat over there. It is pure self-interest on the parts of Corbyn and Sanders.

In truth, the people who really need help are those who do not go on to college. They are the ones who really feel the pressure on wage rates, working conditions, and living standards.

Yet Bernie and Jeremy do not seem to show the same level of concern for them. Indeed, they are asking poorer people who do not go to university to pay taxes in order to support the better-off people who do.

In practice, many students will of course never pay off the loans that they have taken out. This is simply because they will not earn above £25,000 a year, the threshold which triggers repayment of nine pence in the pound on anything above this number.

The think tank Onward released a report earlier this year which showed that five years after graduating, 40 per cent of graduates earned less than this threshold. The median earnings of students of creative arts, for example, was only £23,200 even 10 years after graduation.

So we might reasonably wonder why student numbers continue to rise, despite the increasing evidence that having a degree does little or nothing for the earnings of these marginal additions.

In subjects such as creative arts, one possibility is that it is a rational gamble by students. There is a huge level of inequality in the creative industries; a small number earn vast amounts, while most earn relatively little. Why not take a punt and see if you draw a winning ticket?

But the most plausible reason is that, for many students who occupy places at our less prestigious institutions, education is a consumption good rather than an investment. They get paid to spend three years studying without the pressure of having a regular job.

For contrast, Switzerland prospers despite sending only 10 per cent of its young people to university.

Perhaps it’s time for a drastic rethink of the entire system.

Paul Ormerod
As published in City AM Wednesday 3rd July 2019
Image: Student Protest by Roger Blackwell via  Flickr licensed under CC BY-2.0

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