Voters worried about student debt but divided on solution

Ipsos polling shows lukewarm support for graduate tax, especially among younger respondents

七月 31, 2023
Mortarboard on top of British coins and Pound Sterling banknotes
Source: iStock

Most voters are concerned about the impact of student debt on young people, but opinions vary widely about what to do about it, new data shows.

A poll of more than 2,000 UK adults by Ipsos published on 31 July says that 72 per cent of respondents are concerned about students ending university with high levels of debt, and 73 per cent are worried about people from poorer backgrounds being put off studying by the cost. Fifty-six per cent were concerned about universities not having enough money to provide quality education.

But only 22 per cent agreed that the £9,250 fee cap in England should be lowered, with another 21 per cent preferring to abolish fees altogether. Nineteen per cent preferred to replace fees with a graduate tax, while 11 per cent advocated the status quo and 6 per cent thought fees should be increased.

“Generation Z” respondents – those born between 1996 and 2012, and therefore including the current cohort of students and prospective undergraduates – were more likely to support reducing fees, with 32 per cent backing among this group. In contrast, only 11 per cent of Gen Z respondents liked the idea of a graduate tax.

The results come amid warnings that the ongoing freeze – fees have not gone up since 2017, and have barely budged since 2012 – risks pushing some universities over the precipice.

However, the pleading appears to be falling on deaf ears in Westminster, with Conservative ministers, and the Labour opposition, which is yet to set out its policy. Some in the party have advocated a graduate tax as a fairer option than income-contingent loans.

Among other findings in the polling:

  • Four in 10 respondents think no interest should be charged on student loans, while two in 10 think any interest should be lower than the rate of inflation. Sixteen per cent think interest should be pegged to inflation, while 6 per cent feel it should be higher
  • Forty-five per cent of people feel going to university is worth it for young people, compared with 25 per cent who say it is not
  • Thirty-two per cent of respondents say too many people are going to university, 29 per cent think the current level is about right, while 19 per cent say not enough are going. Among Gen Z, only 20 per cent think too many people are going to university, 37 per cent say the current level is about right, and 28 per cent think more should go.

Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, said the low level of support for a graduate tax among Gen Z was the “standout finding” for him.

“This should be a death knell for the idea as it proves new taxes are as unpopular among new entrants to the labour market as they are among older people,” Mr Hillman said.

Mr Hillman, a former adviser to Lord Willetts during his time as universities minister, added: “Those who want to see fewer people go to higher education will presumably herald the results but they should remember two things: first, no one thinks higher education is for absolutely everyone even if many people, including me, want to see expansion; secondly, employers are crying out for more higher-level skills and it is becoming harder and harder to recruit skilled staff from other countries.”



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