Back then the hard left were strong in NUS, and conference votes on education policy were often on a knife-edge. Free education was a long held policy of the national union, and ever since Blair's Labour government introduced fees in 1998, NUS had been campaigning for their abolition. The thing is, fees were introduced in order to fund the expansion of Higher Education, and Labour had a target of getting 50% of young people going to university.
Towards the end of the decade, NUS changed tac and national conference in 2007 voted to drop the policy of free education. This was followed by the Blueprint for Higher Education which proposed a system of graduate contributions, similar to a graduate tax, and this system was fully costed out and utilised a trust for higher education funding (which the government paid into, and business could also add the fund, perhaps with tax breaks as an incentive) and the amount that a student paid was similar to the then fee level. This was adopted as policy of the national union at the 2008 NUS conference. The rationale was simple, free education was effectively a middle class tax cut and therefore some kind of graduate contribution was fair and progressive.
It was actually widely welcomed by both Labour and the Conservatives at the time as a well thought out, and affordable, policy. It was, ultimately, not adopted by government either side of the election. In monetary terms, there was little difference between the legacy system and the proposed graduate contributions, but a key difference (and perhaps why government never seriously considered it) is that students from other European Union countries would not pay anything without a price tag for the courses, but also never contribute as a graduate unless they remained in the country for work after they finished their course.
In Scotland, the parliament gained powers to set their own level of tuition fees at Scottish universities. The parliament voted to abolish up front fees in 2000 - however students were required to pay an endowment on graduation (students from England, Wales, and Northern Ireland had to pay fees up front, but the UK government still provided loans for this purpose) meaning that EU students still had to pay for their education.
In 2008, just one year after NUS dropped its opposition to tuition fees, the Scottish parliament voted to abolish the graduate endowment, effectively abolishing fees at Scottish universities for both Scottish and EU students. Students from other parts of the UK still had to pay fees, which were set by the Scottish government at just under £3000, a rate very similar to the maximum fee in England (which was increased to £9000 shortly after the 2010 increase in fees in England).
As an aside, the EU rules allow member states to discriminate against their own citizens when it comes to setting tuition fees at different rates depending on where a student comes from, but students from another EU member state must be charged at the same rate as local students. Therefore, if Scotland had voted to become independent and rejoined the EU, students from the rest of the UK would've been able to study in Scotland for free - and almost certainly crippled the Scottish Higher Education budget if fees of some sort were not reintroduced.
So we come back around to this year, and NUS's "Roadmap". It seems to me that this new move back to supporting free education is because of a 2014 NUS Conference motion that was passed with this line in the believes section;
Higher education is a public good and should be free for everyone to access.
and, crucially, this in the resolves;
To oppose and campaign against all methods of charging students for education – including tuition fees and a ‘graduate tax’ which is nothing more than a euphemism for ‘student debt’.
which clearly flies in the face of the previous policy of a graduate contribution (not specifically referenced in the motion, but the mention of graduate tax alluding to it). So nobody can accuse the NUS elected officers of going against national policy.
The problem is that the roadmap hangs on two important concepts; the first one the British public will never swallow, and the second will drive away business from the UK; higher general taxation, and increased corporation tax, both just to give the middle classes a free education.
This next point is important, even if you don't agree that free education is a middle class tax cut then you should remember this - any tax raised can only be spent once - meaning that all those hospitals, schools, and emergency services that want extra funds would have to compete against increased public funding for higher education. Ed Balls has famously spent his proposed bankers bonus tax between five and ten times (depending on which figures you believe to be more accurate), so the idea put forward by the report that "only very wealthy" people and businesses would have to be taxed is not the whole story. The report concedes (after assumptions about the current level of government funding are taken into account) ...
... we are likely to be left with a gap of around £4billion. We believe that this money can and should be raised largely by increasing the level of tax on the richest in society.
£4billion! That's per year, by the way, and in addition to the current funding. It's around 5% of the current budget deficit - or 3 times more than the EU were asking for in that surcharge. Not only that, despite the 26 page report being detailed in the apparent benefit of higher education to the UK economy (which is at least evidenced well) there is no projection of what level of taxation would be required, and at what income level the tax would start. So as I said above, tax rises can only be spent once, and if other areas of public spending are to be increased then this tax would likely have to be raised on well over half the working population, or at a rate well above the current student loan repayment rate.
The current repayment rate is 9% on earnings above £21,000; so considering the government contribution would effectively double and the report wants only the richest in society to pay this additional tax, perhaps the rate would be 15% on higher rate taxpayers (currently those earning over £42,000), which is clearly political suicide for any government that introduces it. On top of that there's really bad news for current and former students, like me; graduates that took out tuition fee loans from 1998 to the present day would have to pay both the new tax, and their student loan repayments. The report actually concedes this;
Unfortunately it will be financially impossible for government to [...] fully compensate those who had to pay for their degree, or are in the process of repaying the cost.
This is fully 10% of the current working population!! This is ridiculous!! NUS, you're better than this. I've defended you so much in the past. Do your maths properly.
Additionally, EU students will also be paying nothing and possibly never pay tax in the UK either (yet another thing UKIP can complain about). Confusingly, the report admits the problem with EU students and then proposes something that wouldn't ever be agreed whist there's such animosity with the EU; "greater tax cooperation between EU countries," which means EU countries would pay the UK some of tax they receive from those that studied in the UK, and "by operating a graduate tax on [UK] expatriates" (who emigrate outside the EU) which is completely impossible as you can't tax someone who has left the country ... the current arrangements mean contractually you still have to pay back your loan to the SLC, which at least could be enforced in the courts of the country an expat is domiciled.
The report goes on to say; "the student loan system decreases the productivity of the economy by lowering the disposable income of graduates", and then completely forgets that increased taxes do exactly the same thing, but for more people over a longer period, plus the 10% of the current working population would have more to pay. At best the comparative impact is neutral.
There are some other suggestions about how the government might raise the money though. There is the return of the idea of the trust for higher education, which is a good start, but then goes on to talk about the financial transaction tax (already spent by a future Labour government on the NHS), cracking down on tax evasion (already spent - schools), increasing inheritance tax by 5% (Labour have actually spent it 2 to 3 times over - ie, proposing 10% to 15% - to pay for additional care in old age).
The fact of the matter is, since the expansion of higher education under the last Labour government, university funding has risen exponentially. Is this a bad thing? I don't think so. The NUS report clearly lays out the benefits higher education brings to a country's economy.
The problem is that free education is not free, and if you don't attempt to recoup the cost of university degrees directly from those who attended then you have to raise taxes by at least the same amount. If you don't have a graduate tax, then the tax is paid by people who never went to university. If you spend that tax on other things, it can't be spent on higher education. If you're won't (or can't) cancel the debt/repayments of the legacy system, those people pay twice. If you have one set of people who never went to university paying for those who are now, another set of people who did go to university paying for both themselves and current students, and a third set of people being subsidised by the other two groups; how is that remotely fair, progressive, or ever likely to become government policy?
This report doesn't add up. Perhaps that's why nobody at NUS towers did the maths on who would get taxed.
This is a Roadmap to Disaster, not one to a free higher education system.
PS: If anyone at NUS can address my concerns, feel free to drop me a message (DM me on twitter for email).
PPS: Since I'm still an individual member of the national union until at least January, if you're a national officer responsible for this area of policy and you've read this - I expect a response.