Sunday, December 12, 2010

Funding Higher Education

The dust is settling a little, the accusations about behaviour during demonstrations are bouncing round the media and conversations up and down the land, and one thing strikes me above all else:  The focus of the public "debate" has been entirely on the rise in tuition fees.  Yet this package is about so much more than that.
There's been some discussion of the rights and wrongs of shifting the burden of paying for education from parents supporting their offspring while at university to graduates paying for it after they leave, but the decision on that shift was taken back in the 90s when Labour introduced tuition fees, having said that they had no plans to do so.  They then introduced top up fees, having said they wouldn't.  So the shift in emphasis on how higher education is funded has been established for more than a decade now under Labour.
Liberal Democrat party policy is to phase out Tuition Fees.  Not enough people voted Lib Dem to get a Lib Dem government, but the country did get a coalition government including Lib Dem ministers.  Some Lib Dem policies are being implemented (on pensions, on early years education, on ID cards, to name just 3) but not all - some Tory policies are being implemented (on Free Schools for example) but not all.
Lord Browne recommended no cap on fees - let universities charge whatever they think the market will stand.  Lib Dems pushed for a cap and got it, albeit at £6000 as the norm.  Under exceptional circumstances universities can charge £9000 per annum but they've got to ensure community benefits and support for students from low income families.
Students whose family income is low enough to qualify them for free school meals will have their first year fees paid by the state.  If they go to a university that charges £9000 the university will have to pay their 2nd year fees.  So for the common 3 year degree those students will only pay £9000 tuition fees.
Part time students who currently have to pay their fees before they start to study will now be able to pay them back through the graduate contribution in the same way as full time students.
Maintenance grants are going up for students from low income families.
No-one will start to repay their loans until their income is £21k per annum which is a lot better than the £15k at present, and it is going to be index linked following pressure from Lib Dem MPs.
These are good things to come out of the response to the Browne report and they are being missed, either deliberately or accidentally, by most of the people shouting about fees including members of the Labour party, not least the leader of the National Union of Students.
I'm not a tax expert and I don't know whether a graduate tax would work better.  I suppose that in truth we'd all like everything to be "free", i.e. paid for from general taxation, but without taxation going up to fund it!  But we have to accept that the number of people of working age in the country is not as high a proportion of the population as it used to be, a higher proportion expect to go into higher education, and the money has to come from somwhere.  Fees paid back from earnings seems as fair a way as any to me. 
Last week I spent some time with people involved in Higher Education and all of them agreed that a rise in tuition fees was disappointing but inevitable, but they did feel very sorry for the students of today compared to those of 50 years ago who went to university, with tuition funded by the state and maintenance grants available to all who needed them.  A golden age perhaps?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You signed a pledge, you broke it. You are all LIARS.