NUS – the problems with issues

First things first, the old-fashioned, good old facts. I am against tuition fees, always have been, from the moment Labour introduced them in 1997 while I was just starting out at college. “Where did this policy come from?” we asked, in somewhat stunned confusion. Well, nowhere, for Labour sprung them onto the nation without much introduction.

(The same, of course as top-up fees, another post-election surprise from Labour)

I don’t know what the NUS have been smoking, but their current violent attitude spilling across the centre of London really does nothing to make them look like the mature counter-argument to university funding. The NUS have got this completely and utterly wrong. By promoting millions of pounds worth of damage to persons and property across London as part of their “debate”, the NUS “leadership” is showing the very worst characteristics of student politics. Shouty, slogan-sore ignorance on a national scale.

Their collective amnesia is stunning. Labour’s introduction and promotion of tuition fees have brought us all to this state, where the only affordable option is to keep the system going with the improvements suggested by Liberal Democrat MPs now in Government. There is no point, at all, in solely blaming the LibDems, as the NUS are doing with all the coherence of a bus-stop drunk.

Graduation Tax proposals were highlighted by the Browne report as being unfair, for they would be levied on students from the moment they earned around £7,000. The new tuition fee proposals, as recommended by Liberal Democrats in Coalition Government, would see repayments START at £21,000, an increase from £15,000. This is an improvement, something the NUS cannot hear above the screaming and gnashing of teeth.

Labour sewed tuition fees into the fabric of university funding. The NUS has to explain what system it would introduce instead of tuition fees, one which would raise AT LEAST the same amount of money. Nobody in the NUS has come up with a credible reason why the entire nation should be expected to pay for university education out of general taxation.

Their “plan” to force by-elections in every LibDem seat is also indicative of their ignorance. There is no “recall MP” law in place yet, that LibDem proposal is still to make it through Parliament (as with the fixed-term parliament proposal, and increasing tax allowances and all other promises made, these things take time). The “right to recall” is only for MPs who have broken the law – such as Phil Woolas. What has Nick Clegg done to break the law? Nothing.

I have great sympathy with anti-tuition fee protesters. BUT I do not, cannot, accept the view that the only organisation responsible is the Liberal Democrats and the only recourse is setting fire to the Square Mile. The NUS has got its argument completely wrong. In the court of public opinion, they resemble the very worst kind of student protesting stereotype.

Labour got us into this mess. If they had increased University funding in line with all other public spending splurges, this mess would not know be realised. There is no point in whinging about the result of the General Election, not trying to rewrite history to present Labour as “friends of students”.

As the sight of the NUS-led protests against “Tony B. Liar” prove, sometimes all the students unions need are reasons to be angry with no solutions to back up the slogans.

I am against tuition fees, now as ever. I am against the NUS setting the HE funding argument as a LibDem witchhunt. It is not accurate, it is baseless in fact and shallow in detail.

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open market universities

Lord Browne has released his recommendations for higher education funding, largely covered by the press as ‘the tuition fees increase plan’.

Tuition fees, as a policy, in addition to the 50% “application aspiration” created a trap for successive governments, effectively “locking in” future administrations to the model of an education free market. Remove tuition fees – as Liberal Democrats have campaigned since their introduction by Labour – and the gap needs to be filled by some payment structure of at least equal value. I remember the “march forth on March 4th” anti-tuition fee protests of the time, just as I had started College. I was against tuition fees as much then as now.

Graduation tax, as favoured by Vince Cable and new Labour leader Ed Miliband, would be an additional layer of income tax introduced into an already complex tax regime. Although it seems fairer to reflect immediate earnings in repayments, graduates would pay back money from the moment they earn more than the current income threshold (just shy of £6,500 at the moment, £7,500 or thereabouts next year, aiming for the £10,000 pledged within the Coalition agreement by 2015). Lord Browne suggests removing the tuition fee cap with a minimum “payback level” of £21,000.

Even with this “minimum level”, potential or existing students must see the future of learning as an arduous and expensive ordeal. Those with a level head realise that, as with many investments in life, the initial outlay must be the toughest part. Only education is not – or was not until 1997 – supposed to lie in parallel to buying a house, car, or taking a holiday. Suddenly the University dream became an economic nightmare, one in which those who could afford top-up fees and repayment rates felt marginally less uncomfortable than those who simply could not. Having had the encouragement to apply for Uni – not least through the Labour Party’s 50% “application aspiration” – students should not be forgiven for thinking they have been invited into the educational equivalent of timeshare apartments.

There’s no credible University funding argument anymore, trapped as we all are with a student-focused repayment plan created in 1997 from Lord Dearing’s report and continued by Lord Browne. The market for education has been firmly tied into the fabric of education reform.

Some level of realism needs to sink into this debate. Uni is not for everyone, but neither should it be restricted to the academically able who just happen to be economically restricted. The depressing manner in which Uni as a gateway to mega-bucks jobs and economic stability has been accepted without question is perhaps the more vital question. When did education for the good of the mind become unfashionable? It is this question which has been forgotten by almost everyone involved in the debate.

extra-time needed on tuition fees policy

Uni students were probably not spending this morning at the breakfast table pouring over blogs and Twitter feeds on the hunt for updates regarding the Liberal Democrats and alleged “u-turns” on tuition fees policy. One of the more instantly recognisable policies for the LibDems, opposition to tuition fees is the reason why so many votes came our way in recent elections. Speaking sense on this – and forcing Labour into altering the policy in Scotland – made far more people see the true benefits of voting Liberal Democrat.

Clearly £12bn – the cost of scrapping the charge according to Nick Clegg – is not a figure easily found elsewhere. Even with the very impressive list of cost cutting policies announced today, finding every last penny is going to be a difficult task. Such is Brown’s legacy. Blair’s own legacy – and what a charge sheet that is! – is to chain an education mortgage around the necks of so many thousands of students who wonder why they bothered going to university in the first place. Under Brown’s disastrous leadership there’s not even enough uni places to go round to meet the demand of those who assumed Labour were not lying when they set their “50%” Uni target.

Clegg’s apparent “honesty” on the spending cuts issue was not handled very well. “It’s a policy I support but know we can’t afford” is certainly a refreshing admission but hasn’t gone down very well. There can be no backtracking on tuition fees; it’s almost as though the next policy to go under is opposition to the Iraq war.

My vote at the next election is not going to change, I will always support a Party of genuine progressive politics and honesty. But Clegg needs to be careful. Some policies are worth keeping, for we are surely the party who care more about long-term opportunities than short-term headlines?