12 October 2010

Hire Education

As the apologists from the coalition government reeled from the left hook of cutting Child Benefit, they were crunched across the nose, metaphorically speaking, by the right jab of unlimited University tuition fees. Not least because Lib Dems had made a pre-election song-and-dance about not increasing fees, in the unlikely event of them achieving government. Just another of the messy compromises made in fulfilling the coupling of government, and surely the biggest lesson in being careful what you wish for. Another notch on the bedposts of a hungover political party.

For those who may have missed the tuition fee hike proposal, it marks the latest attempt to open up education to everyone by making it affordable by no-one, except perhaps Chancellor Osborne’s personal trust fund. Parents can now enjoy the prospect of helping their children pay £10,000 a year not to attend lectures. Since this represents about the same cost of schooling at Osborne’s alma mater for one year, I’m sure Gideon considers this a perfectly reasonable sum to find. You don’t have to be heir to the 17th Baronet Osborne to afford it, but it sure as heck helps.

The hoary old argument wheeled out every time this subject comes up is essentially reduced to money. Graduates, taken as an average, earn more than non-graduates, ergo they should pay for their golden ticket before they've even got a job. QED. Leaving aside the rather un-Thatcherite nature of this approach – where’s the incentive to earn more if the government will only take it off them in fees? – this argument seems to me to have two key flaws.

First, there is the paradox of wider university uptake. The reason we need to pay more is because more people are coming into the system. This is undoubtedly true, as more professions demand a degree as an entry requirement: social workers, nurses, teachers – all once could attain their chosen vocation through on-the-job training and night school qualifications. No more – it’s the full three years if you want to do any of those jobs. Before long English graduates will be competing for those jobs in McDonald’s with undergraduate BScs in Burger Rotation Management. As you widen the pool of potential professions that require a degree, you drag down the average earnings of graduates – for how long will the statement remain true that a degree is the meal ticket to top tax bracket earnings? Before long you’ll need one just to sign on.

Second, let’s assume it is true – graduates earn more money. What an outrage. Those selfish, self-bettering, hard-working, economy-powering bastards, who do they think they are? Doctors pushing themselves through 7 years of medical school to spend their days just making people better, and all to earn more money. Those sponging parasite engineers who build the technology that drives the economy – scumbags the lot of them. I’m shocked to think that while we train a new generation of minds to solve tomorrow’s problems and make our lives better, they might earn money doing so. They should do it for nothing and be grateful we let them get drunk for 3 years.

The one way of testing out a direct link between earnings and your degree, of course, would be a graduate tax, something the government has ruled out. While fees remain the financial driver, the best universities will charge the most, attracting those who can best pay in the short-term, not through their lifetime earnings, based upon their contribution to the common wheel. The new level playing fields of Eton.

11 October 2010

Let them drink gin

The rumpus over Child Benefit that threatened to wake up the dozing pensioners at last week’s Conservative Party conference has proved what a tricky subject the issue of cuts can be. Far from dividing along the line of traditional political allegiance, Chancellor Gideon “George” Osborne found himself at odds with the Daily Mail, which lined up with the Labour party. The phrase "curious bedfellows" has not been applied so truly since Lyle Lovett married Julia Roberts.

At first glance it is easy to see why there was agitation in the ranks. A primary school class of children could point out the iniquities in a proposal that posited a household with one income of £44,000 might merit no support, whilst another couple earning £86k could claim full benefit entitlement.

An interesting debate raged across the various media platforms that was far more complex than the usual name calling; many recognise the daftness of paying child benefit to someone earning, say, £100,000 a year, but how far down the cutoff point should be largely depends on how far south you live, how much your mortgage payments are, and whether you judge a foreign holiday to be a luxury or human right. Still more, the culture secretary, of all people, perhaps unwisely mused that there should be a cap on benefits paid to large families who continue to reproduce, though no mention of how this would be enforced. In turn, childless couples would then vent that, in fact, they were the biggest victims of a taxation system that seeks to rob them in order to pay to raise the offspring of the sexually incontinent.

Given that only 15% of the country pays the top rate of tax (the point at which Giddy proposes to cut off the award), it is possible that the issue excites more attention from journalists personally affected, rather than an accurate spread of their constituency. Nevertheless, speaking as a parent, I would say the government should look on child benefit as an expression of good manners. A tip, or the equivalent of taking a bottle around to someone’s house for dinner. It’s not something that would cover the costs of child rearing and nor is it intended to be. Consider, for example, if I were to abandon my children, throw them upon the mercy of the state. No matter the punishment levied upon me for doing so, the cost burden would fall squarely on the shoulders of the taxpayer, and for a lot more than 20 quid a week. Child benefit is like the state shoving a score in my top pocket and saying “go on, get yourself something nice in town, you deserve it”. It is tacit recognition that, as lovely as children often are, they are also a responsibility paid for, in large part, by the parents for the ultimate fiscal reward of the state – as they grow into tax-paying citizens (we hope).

It is surely no coincidence that the amount of Child Benefit has always roughly been the monetary equivalent of a bottle of gin (I’d argue it should be index linked to it). Because after a trying weekend of childcare, it’s surely every parent’s right to a gin and tonic on the government. Cheap at half the price.