Students are paying the price of this arranged marriage

by Andy Dodd

With tomorrow’s vote on university tuition fees seen as the first major test of the Tory-Lib Dem government’s arranged marriage, it is timely to consider exactly what the vote could, or should, mean for Labour.

To begin with, it is a perfect opportunity to expose the increasingly bizarre contortions of the Lib Dems, who cannot seem to make up their mind whether they are the government or the opposition. Many did not expect the coalition to run smoothly, but they did not anticipate that it would wobble so soon and so dramatically. Increasingly, the notion that Nick Clegg’s party could apply its manifesto as part of an alliance seems fanciful. Nobody cares about the soft touches round the edges when the grand design of the Conservative majority is so brutal.

As Lord Paddy Ashdown pointed out yesterday (BBC Radio 5 Live Drive, 6 December), Lib Dem MPs should be duty bound to vote for raising tuition fees. The policy was included in the coalition agreement which was unanimously agreed by all members of the Lib Dem parliamentary party. In agreeing to form the government, each knew very well that they would have to compromise on election manifesto pledges. And yet they made that deal.

So, please spare me the hand wringing of the Lib Dem minions who are learning the hard way that you cannot run the country by cherry picking. Spare us, too, the convoluted logic of a secretary of state who develops a policy that triggers mass demonstrations across the land and then admits that he may not even vote for it. This is a travesty of government.

Opposing Lord Browne’s proposals and pouring scorn on the Tory-Lib Dem government’s internal divisions is straightforward enough. But Labour members want to see more detail from the party on how it would tackle the crisis in higher education funding. Unfortunately, the differences expressed in public by Ed Miliband and Alan Johnson over the graduate tax mean that the party could miss the open goal. How can we adversely criticise the Lib Dems for their disagreements if we cannot present a common front ourselves? Bearing in mind that it was a Labour government which introduced tuition fees in the first place, we need a more energetic approach from John Denham and his team. Ideally, a clear pledge to abolish tuition fees and a commitment dramatically to reduce the amount of debt the average undergraduate incurs during their studies.

Adverse critics on the right will claim that this is unaffordable. Others disagree. If the government could only find the same degree of enthusiasm for curbing corporation tax engineering as it does for benefit fraud, reducing student debt would be a practical and tangible objective.

Instead, UK [English] higher education costs will be higher than anywhere else in Western Europe – as pointed out in Claude Carpentieri’s article here.

Lord Browne’s proposal to introduce market-based tuition fees into higher education is another of the government’s blitzkrieg ideological assaults on lower income and underprivileged families. Lord Browne is another example of a supremely wealthy individual, with a stratospheric fortune, making bold pronouncements on “how things should be” with little or no understanding of what life is like for the millions affected by his proposals.

The subject is close to my own heart because I went to university before the introduction of tuition fees. Coming from an ordinary background – Dad a truck driver and Mum self-employed – I was the only person from my family ever to reach higher education. Had the proposed system existed then, it is very likely that I would not have gone. I graduated with what felt like a colossal £3,000 overdraft. £3,000. With that kind of student debt now, I would be laughing all the way to the bank, not rushing from it in tears.

It is ignorant and patronising when the multi-millionaire peer says that he does not expect students to be put off university by the thought of debt. While in the same breath he proposes to hit students from low-income families with liabilities of £30,000. Irrespective of how and when you have to pay it off, this is a big number for students who come from poorer backgrounds.

I would argue that if you were to hand most people £30,000, they would regard it as a substantial amount of money.

Proponents of the Conservative and Lib Dem proposals would argue that this is precisely the point. In 2003, when he was still a jobbing hack, Michael Gove wrote in an article in the Times:

“The first point that needs to be made about the so-called deterrent effect of a £21,000 loan is that anyone put off from attending a good university by fear of that debt doesn’t deserve to be at any university in the first place. Incurring such a relatively small debt to pay for the huge economic benefit conferred by proper higher education is a fantastic deal”.

University is a life-changing experience that allows the graduate to command superior benefits in society, and should, therefore, be something that is charged for accordingly. As Gove succinctly put it: “But why should the vast majority, who go on to benefit financially from their degree, be subsidised by me”?

And therein lies the Thatcherite philosophy, the innate selfishness of Conservative ideology that should shame each and every Lib Dem MP and galvanise Labour. Because if we are all “in this together”, the financial benefits of a degree should be an opportunity for the vast majority to aspire to.

And instead of having a system whereby students are encouraged to view their education as a personal transaction, we might then live in a country where those who benefit from higher education feel an obligation towards the community that enabled their prosperity.

As things stand, future graduates are almost being programmed to be self-centred. If I had grafted for years to pay off my gigantic student loan, I might well feel that all my future earnings should exclusively be devoted to looking after number one. Most Labour supporters would feel that this is a bad society, not a big one. Perhaps cultivating selfishness is part of the long term Tory plan.

I am not proposing that anyone with a degree should be taxed until their eyes water. But as a graduate, with a higher than average salary, I could easily afford to contribute more in repayment of the taxpayer-funded affluence that my degree conferred without any real impact on my lifestyle. That is the kind of economic contract that we should be trying to create with the graduates of tomorrow, not one that encourages them to look at their degree as another form of market-based individualism. In this respect, Ed Miliband is on the right lines when he proposes a graduate tax. But why not have those on larger salaries pay a bit more through income tax throughout their working life instead of a graduate levy?

What I object to most of all is hitting the students of tomorrow with the worst of both worlds: student loan repayments and increased personal tax liabilities. And not every student goes on to earn a packet. We still need English and history teachers. Student debt is likely to affect their future credit history and mortgage discussions as their income may not rise enough for them ever to pay it off. Is it fair to force hundreds of thousands of people to live under that cloud all their adult life?

The Welsh Assembly has already said that it will cover the increase for its own students, which sounds like a good deal for the devolved populations. But higher education establishments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are under increased pressure thanks to the English-only scope of Lord Browne’s proposals. Increased tuition fees raise the amount of funding available for English universities in such a way as to avoid consequential payments under the Barnett formula. Scottish or Welsh universities will find themselves at a disadvantage for teaching and research unless the devolved governments make similar adjustments in line with the English proposals. As the Conservatives and Lib Dems are so poorly represented in Scotland and Wales, this is both morally and politically untenable. Westminster has no mandate to foist England-centric policies on the nations, yet Browne leaves them little choice if they are to compete for the best and brightest students. In this respect, the supposed “choice” of devolved government looks even more tangled than the Lib Dems.

It is unlikely that the government will lose the vote on tuition fees tomorrow, but the coalition looks set to become more fragile if large numbers of Lib Dems abstain or vote against the policy. Though they have been controversial, the student protests have changed the mood of the country, sowing seeds of doubt and discontent among those who thought slashing public spending was a good idea. Events across the Irish Sea have served as a timely warning about the consequences of fervent austerity. Now is the perfect time for Labour to move up a gear in opposition and commit to ensuring that access to higher education is a realistic ambition for any student with the ability for study, irrespective of their background or means.

Andy Dodd is a member of the Labour Party and writes in a personal capacity.

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One Response to “Students are paying the price of this arranged marriage”

  1. Robin Thorpe says:

    I have to say that I am broadly in agreement with you on the abolishing of tuition fees and the ideological commitment of Tories to not only decrease public expenditure but to engender a bias towards financial motivation and selfishness; however I have to disagree on the prospect of simply raising income tax for higher earners (although I do think that higher earners should pay more). I think you are on the right lines when you say that corporation tax evasion is a big loss of revenue for HMRC (a shame then the they are being faced with redundancies!); my personal opinion is that corporation tax on middle and large sized companies should be used to pay for higher education. If we were to analyse the costs and benefits of HE I am sure that it would become clear that the biggest (financial) winner from increased levels of education is the corporate entity. The generation of their wealth is often as a result of the work done by graduates, in the odd case that it is not their work is undoubtedly supported by graduates (whether it be an accountant or en external consultant). Risk Management teaches us that the burden of risk should be borne by the body most able to deal with that risk.

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