Education - Article after the vote
No Top Up Fees - article for Campaign Group News 27
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 todays 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 Governments
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
The OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and
Development) recently put out a report sympathetic to the Governments 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 todays poorer students with a massive debt, whilst I, as a graduate, pay
nothing after receiving a full maintenance grant equivalent to about £4000 at
todays prices, and having paid no tuition fees. Wouldnt 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. Shouldnt 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 dont like the proposals and they
dont 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
wont solve the funding crisis in our universities.