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Higher Education - Article after the vote

No Top Up Fees - article for Campaign Group News 27 January 2004.

On Newsnight, before the recent vote (Jan 27 2004), Tony Blair attempted to sell the proposals in the Higher Education Bill to critics. But his boast that loans will only have to be paid off on the basis of ability to pay and "for the first time if [graduates] want to use the maintenance grant to pay for fees they will be able to do so" need to be assessed on the basis of the system we inherited, not the one we introduced in 1998.  The maintenance grant in 97/98 was worth approximately £2000 at today’s prices compared to the grant now being re-introduced at £1500.  In 1998, the Government reduced the income level at which student loans became repayable to £10,000 when it was previously set at 85% of average national earnings, equivalent to more than £19,500  - this compares to the Government's proposed repayment threshold of only £15,000.  Surely the Government must some responsibility for the current system.  In 1998, David Blunkett told MPs that the Government’s ‘reforms’ would "ensure the investment needed for the future of our nation".  They didn't.  Worse still, neither will the current proposals.

Even if the introduction of top-up fees brings in the amount of money the Government says it will, Charles Clarke has admitted that there will still be a substantial shortfall from the funds universities require – at least £2 billion a year, not taking into account the maintenance and other backlogs from past underfunding. The Treasury will have to put money up in the short term and, in the long term, the real costs to Government are high.  According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, universities will get an extra £950 million at a cost to the Treasury of over £I billion.

The OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) recently put out a report sympathetic to the Government’s plans but they did not address the unfair burden the proposals will place on poorer students.  If the OECD is interested in fairness they should address the fact that the proposals will saddle today’s poorer students with a massive debt, whilst I, as a graduate, pay nothing after receiving a full maintenance grant equivalent to about £4000 at today’s prices, and having paid no tuition fees.  Wouldn’t it be ‘fairer’ for the higher rate earners to pay more tax – not the dustman or middle income people – but people like me and Tony Blair?  Most of us who are in this bracket will be graduates and, if not, are likely to have children or grandchildren who will aspire to be.

But, if we raise more money from higher rate tax payers, surely there are priorities before universities which would deserve the extra money?  It is not that kind of competition.  It is a serious mistake to dislocate the benefit gained from our universities by our public services and education system as a whole.

The Government has a 50% target of young people going to university but, at the moment, we have 78% of people from socio-economic group 1 going into higher education and only 14% from the lowest socio economic group – what a waste of potential talent.  Shouldn’t our target be to substantially raise the participation in higher education of that group?  The Bill will not achieve that.  On the contrary, despite the reintroduction of grants (at a lower level than that inherited from the Tories) we are increasing the level of Government-organised student debt on young people from low-income backgrounds when we know, from research, about the deterrent effect this has.  And for those who do take their A Levels, the ‘marketisation’ of our university system will lead to poor people opting to stay at home to study ‘cheap’ subjects at ‘cheap’ universities.

There is an issue of principle: variable fees introduce a market place and set up the beginnings of a US style system.  This is not addressed by the concessions the Government have made.  However these proposals are spun, they fly in the face of our 2001 manifesto commitment on top up fees.  The closeness of the vote shows that many colleagues feel as I do – they don’t like the proposals and they don’t want to break their word.  These issues will now rumble on, increasing the damage to the Party.  The eventual Bill that emerges will be a botched job that won’t solve the funding crisis in our universities.

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