Monday, 24 November 2014

Council tax - Epigram editorial (24 November 2014)

‘Students should pay council tax’. Yes, that’s not just a comment on Mail Online. It was a serious motion brought forward by elected councillors in the nearby city of Bath recently. Admittedly, once amended, it stated that it should be landlords rather than students ourselves to pay.
But, quite clearly, if this happened, landlords would increase rents for students, meaning that ultimately we would be paying for it. And why should we? There are so many reasons why it would be absurd to ask us to foot the council tax bill that we felt it would be wrong to waste a ‘Big Debate’ in our Comment section on the issue.
We should remain exempt: not because students use fewer council services than most residents, although this is true. Students tend to use University libraries rather than council libraries, the students’ union swimming pool rather than leisure centres, and buses less frequently than most (bin collection and street lighting are the only exceptions that spring to mind). That is not the point — those of us fortunate enough not to need social care within our families, for instance, should not argue that those who use it should be paying more tax than us.
Making students pay council tax would be so absurd that it would be wrong to waste a ‘Big Debate’ on the issue
The point is mainly that students could simply not afford it. Maintenance loans already barely cover the extortionate cost of accommodation in a city like Bristol, and many students are reliant on parents and/or part-time work to cover costs of food, bills and transport. If the law were to be changed in this way, students would be paying but excluded from safeguards such as benefits, which other groups who struggle to pay council tax receive.
The subtext to motions such as those proposed by this group of independent councillors in Bath is that students not only cause noise disruption for lots of local residents — and also seem to all own cars: if you believe comments on the Bristol Post or Bath Chronicle websites, ‘student houses have 3/4 cars each’ — but are also a drain on resources. It neglects to mention the fact that students actually contribute to the local economy.
Just as universities have a positive net impact nationally, students locally contribute to growth by spending money in local businesses. In this regard, much of any financial gain for the council would be offset anyway. It is difficult not to conclude that, regrettably, the timing of the debate may have something to do with the fact that certain Bath councillors’ seats, including that of the proposer of the motion, are up for election in May.
It appears to be an example of when politicians seek to demonise one group in order to please another group which they can rely on to vote – for them. This is something all too familiar to us, under a government hell-bent on turning the in-work poor on the unemployed, or persuading low-paid workers that immigrants are to blame for their falling wages rather than bosses which cut them.
The subject of one group being pitted against another brings me onto the debate surrounding how much is spent per student in each department. While I hope that the figures published today which show the huge discrepancies between those in different faculties will generate discussion between students, both in Epigram and in kitchens and living rooms, I hope that it does not become a case of arts students vs. science students.
While it is understandable for arts students to be aggrieved that a Physics student is having three times as much spent on them per year, ultimately the fault does not lie with the Physicist but the government responsible for the shambolic fees system in place.
It should be remembered that many of the architects behind the worrying marketisation of universities would welcome a move to a system whereby students would pay for exactly what is spent on them, meaning that higher education would fully become a market, with Dentistry students paying three times as much as linguists.
Were that to happen, higher education would become even more about privilege, with certain courses closed off to certain sectors of society. I agree that the status quo is unacceptable and that arts students at Bristol are getting a raw deal and should not be paying any fees, let alone £9000. It was a relief when the Universities Minister reassured Epigram that he would not raise fees again anytime soon.
But, while fees should be abolished or at least reduced substantially, I would not wish for the above. To get onto degree courses with the highest potential income would require coming from a high-income background, and structural inequalities would be cemented and even increased. The last thing that Bristol needs is to become more elitist still.

Originally published at: http://epigram.org.uk/letters/2014/11/letter-from-the-editor-3. Note: This story was later picked up by The Independent.

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