According to the Sunday Times, the Labour Party is facing a mass revolt from its own parliamentary candidates, as 200 have already signed the petition organised by the National Union of Students (NUS) opposing any increase in the current £3,220 tuition fee limit. However, the ongoing debate on university tuition fees is nothing short of perverse.

Whatever the historical reasons for the £14.3 billion annual subsidy to students and universities, it is impossible to escape the fact that when public subsidies are spent on higher education, some of the taxes being paid by the general taxpayer (including those on low incomes) are now being used to support students who a) would have been prepared to invest in their own university education themselves b) come from families who would have been prepared to cover the full cost and c) will expect to earn much more after graduating than many of those who are now being forced to subsidise them.

The inequitable nature of the way in which higher education is funded has previously been criticised by Professor Nicholas Barr (LSE), who has suggested that those campaigning against tuition fees would do well to recognise the simple fact that “free” simply means that someone else pays. He concludes that “the evidence is unambiguous: ‘free’ higher education redistributes from poor to rich.”

Professor Andrew Oswald (University of Warwick) has also described the British system as unethical, because of the barely discussed subsidy from the badly off to the rich. He concludes that “[e]very year, poor families contribute hundreds of pounds through their taxes to each undergraduate in Great Britain. That is immoral.” Professor Oswald also refers to the muddled logic of many left wing commentators who continue to believe that taxing the poor to subsidise the rich is somehow egalitarian. This is also not a phenomenon which is unique to the UK – Milton and Rose Friedman in the US have previously admitted that “those of us who are in the middle and upper‑income classes have conned the poor into subsidizing us on a grand scale ‑ yet we not only have no decent shame, we boast to the treetops of our selflessness and public spiritedness.”

A similar sense of selflessness and public spiritedness is reflected in the NUS promise to name and shame every candidate who refuses to sign a pledge to oppose a rise in university fees. However, if a candidate signs this pledge then this implies that they not only support the current policy of taxing the poor to subsidise the rich, but that they also want this burden of taxation to be increased even further. It will also imply that the candidate believes that even though many students and their families can afford to fund their own university education themselves (often via loans), it is still much better if they continue to live at the expense of everybody else, including those on low incomes.

Clearly there is no shame in refusing to sign this petition and candidates should be happy to explain that it is not the role of government to take money from low-income families in order to subsidise students who are perfectly capable of funding themselves. Finally, if the NUS is so intent on securing a free ride for its members, then they are still free to appeal to the public directly. And if union leaders believe that they occupy the moral high ground on this issue, then they can look forward to a warm and sympathetic response on the doorstep.

This blog originally appeared on the IEA website on 27 April 2010.