In response to Owen Smith’s proposal for a graduate tax to replace student fees, one correspondent got literally hundreds of likes for the apparently brilliant notion that there should be neither student fees nor a graduate tax because “all education should be free”.
Yet such simplistic nonsense is the very problem with our democracy. It is almost impossible for anyone to dispute that line and not make themselves appear abhorrent to the world. And yet it is total nonsense.
Firstly, education as a matter of fact is not free. Teachers and tutors must be paid; buildings must be constructed, maintained, rented and heated; materials must be bought; none of this is “free”. By “free”, we actually mean “paid for by the taxpayer”. So, not free, in other words.
Secondly, if I decide for no reason other than my own amusement to do an online course in gardening, should that be paid for by the taxpayer (or “free”, as some like to call it)? Of course not. What a ridiculous notion.
So let us work back from there. If I decide to do an adult learning course, should it be “free”? Or maybe a degree in my spare time, for no reason other than I qualified and felt like it? Or maybe a degree full time…?
Basic education, and within that I include nursery, should be available for “free” (i.e. on the taxpayer) for all. That gives everyone a fair chance, regardless of background (or, at least, it should), and is a broad and wise social investment for us all (even those of us without children of our own).
But optional further education? That is an investment in yourself for which you are likely to be rewarded, and not just financially. I recommend it. But it’s for you, so don’t expect me to pay for it!
And let’s think before we trot out such populist nonsense.