I didn't see Newsnight on Monday when Tony Blair faced an audience of current and prospective students over his plans to introduce top up fees for university but on the news yesterday I did see the girl who is studying medicine who attacked Blair and his plans.
Her argument went something like this: "If a dustman has a heart attack and I save his life isn't it right that he should have paid towards my training through his taxes?" This argument is flawed in a few ways.
Before I get into those, I'll just reiterate that I find myself in the unusual position of actually agreeing with Blair on this issue. Frankly, that just doesn't happen very often and it feels very strange. On the one hand, I'd love to see him lose the vote next week but on the other I want him to win. Very odd.
As for the argument above, firstly it should be pointed out that no one is suggesting that students should foot the entire bill for their university education. The government will still give grants to universities so the dustman will be making some contribution to his eventual saviour's training anyway.
Secondly, and most trivially, if you extend her argument she is effectively saying that she's only doing it as a public service; she's not going to get any personal gain or gratification from it. Fair enough, if she's not going to get anything from it on a personal level then she shouldn't pay anything for it. But I bet that's not true.
More importantly, though is that there is a flipside to the argument which she hasn't followed through. Or maybe she has since she chose another public sector employee as the example. I'm sure she wouldn't mind if I change the dustman into, say, a milkman, who works for a dairy, not the government. If she is saying that the milkman should pay for her training as a doctor then, surely she should pay for the milkman's, too? Even if it isn't a degree in milk delivery. Granted she may not actually get her milk delivered and so doesn't 'need' the milkman but how about someone equally 'menial' who works for a power company? Or a supermarket? Follow the argument to its logical conclusion and before you know it, all training would have to be paid for out of taxes.
And what about courses that aren't of such obvious benefit to others? Such as Media Studies or Paleontology or my own degree, Mathematics. Who pays for those?
Nothing I have seen so far has made me think that students shouldn't contribute to their own education. After all, a university education is not purely about gaining knowledge and it is not something that is available to everyone so why should those who have to miss out pay for those how don't?