At the Lib Dem conference, Nick Clegg has been pressed onto the defensive over his proposal to postpone the Lib Dem policy of scrapping existing tuition fees (which would cost some £12.5 bn over a 5-year parliament). Meanwhile, the CBI has come out with a plan to let universities raise their fees to £5,000 per year. NUS President, Wes Streeting, comments that the CBI proposal is 'offensive'. University Vice-Chancellors quite like it.
There is, I think, a clear social justice case for tuition fees - and for raising them. The case is not conclusive. There are reasonable objections to it. But a case is there, and critics on the left - whether in Labour, the Lib Dems, or the Greens - need to address it.
The case I have in mind is this. Whether we are concerned with justice between age-groups, or justice between young adults, we could probably do a better job of promoting social justice if we spent some of the money we spend on higher education subsidies on something else. Given a fixed budget, we should therefore spend money on other things and raise tuition fees accordingly.
First take spending between age groups. Would we promote social justice more effectively if we redistributed some spending from one age group to another?Well, we know that earlier interventions to develop human capital are more effective than later interventions. Yet we spend much more per head on university students than we do on education in children's early years. So it looks as if there could be a discrepancy between how we currently spend money in education and how we would spend it if we were seeking to provide maximum benefit to the disadvantaged (in terms of cognitive development and subsequent life-chances). If so, then there is apparently a case for shifting spending down the age-range, from higher education to earlier years.
Of course, we don't necessarily have to cut higher education subsidies to devote more money to early years education. We could cut something else. The Lib Dems propose that we cut the Child Trust Fund.
But this brings us to our second issue of justice: What would an equitable public policy to support young adults look like?
As a social democrat, I think that young people should have an equal platform from which to launch ambitiously into their adult lives. The obvious way to achieve this is to give them all equal resources to explore and pursue their initial ambitions. This is the thought behind the idea of a citizens' inheritance: granting all citizens on maturity a sum of capital that is theirs to do with as they like.
Higher education subsidies do provide a citizens' inheritance in kind - but only for some young adults. They provide hefty citizens' inheritances for the more academically able who, in addition, tend to come from more advantaged socioeconomic backgrounds.
Meanwhile, those young people not going to higher education tend not to get an equivalent public subsidy, and so tend not to get an equivalent platform for launching ambitiously into adult life.
Thus, as a matter of justice in the distribution of public spending on young people, we have reason to consider shifting public money out of higher education subsidies and towards a more universal capital grant scheme.
This, again, would imply higher tuition fees for those going into higher education. The flip-side would be something like a higher Child Trust Fund or similar policy (one that would put some capital into the hands of today's 18 year-olds).
As I said, I don't think the case is conclusive. But I think it is a strong case. It should inform the emerging debate over where the burdens of a 'progressive austerity' should fall.
Postscript, 23/9/09: In view of the excellent comments by Timothy Carter and others below I thought I should at least add a question-mark to the title of this post. The argument I make is an argument for reducing higher education subsidies. Whether that is best managed via higher tuition fees or higher taxes on graduates is another question....