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.

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university, challenged

I agree with Nick.

“I believe tuition fees are wrong, I believe they need to be abolished”

Unlike Labour, who over 13 years of misrule could not see the consequences of “spend, spend, spend”, Nick told Party Conference last year that the country may well not be able to afford the abolition of tuition fees; he maintained that they were a policy he could not abide and would, when circumstances were better, move to abolish.

In his first major speech as University Minister, David “I Had Two Brains Once” Willetts has sown the possibility of tuition fees having to rise, or at least remaining in place for English students. His blame falls on Labour;

Labour left a system on shaky financial foundations, without a viable long-term future

He went on to say;

“If fees were to go up, the government would have to lend people the money to pay for them – and that would push up public spending…It’s not just that students don’t want to pay higher fees: the Treasury can’t afford them”

Universities are not scraping the barrels quite yet; there are alternative revenue streams aside from the Government or tuition fees. As in all areas of spending over the next 12 months, 2 years, cost-cutting will have to be looked at from the very top to bottom. After 13 years of economic misrule, we all have to suffer the consequences.

The “T”‘s threatening the stability of the coalition – Trident, Tuition Fees, taxes – have all shaken the alliance since polling day. As I have always done, since their forced introduction, I will oppose university tuition fees. Their abolition for Scottish students in Scotland shows it can be done.

Tuition fees are inexcusable, a mortgage on education, a tax on learning. Students should not leave with the cost of a family car around their neck for the sake of their future careers. Reviewing what Universities spend, and how, is vital for the coalition.

But I will not support an increase in tuition fees. The consequences of the ill-thought out plan should not be putting more strain on students. Too many short-term errors were made by Labour – the arbitrary 50% aim for University admissions, for example, which now “ties in” future governments to the level else to look elitist. The aim of 50% has opened up the gates to too many students chasing too little places; little wonder smaller institutions are now feeling the financial strain. Little wonder the students loan service is close to imploding under the pressure.

Nothing related to spending commitments will be easy, with the tight constraints of the previous Government boxing in the aims of this one – “There is no money left!”. No matter the change in context, though, my convictions stay the same. I agree with Nick; tuition fees must, at some point, be abolished.

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?