Wednesday, 8 December 2010


I have struggled with the student fees issue more than any other but its important to be able to decide so here goes.

I fought the election having agreed the pledge to oppose a rise in tuition fees: the LDs didn't win the election, we came third. I work for a university, albeit not in a teaching area. I had a free education - but no support grant and the first year of loans to deal with. I did a Masters which was paid for by my parents - thanks Dad. I have never quite lifted myself from the debt ridden state that university put me in, despite nearly 20 years of work so I know about paying for an education, I know about debt and I know about hardship.

I have been faced with a barrage of information about the proposed cuts to university funding and over the inequities of the proposals. Under the current system of fees which Labour introduced - let's call them 'Labour fees' for short - you are saddled with upfront debts as soon as you start university. You can apply for grants and other support but for most people its pay upfront or get a job. If you're part-time you pay your Labour fees upfront and in full, so that's the low-paid stuffed good and proper by the supposed 'people's party'.

The new system being proposed by the coalition will mean much higher fees. This will cover much more of the cost of the courses at universities, putting their finances onto a fairer footing. The crucial difference is that these higher fees will only need to be paid back once people leave university and once they are earning over £21,000 - thanks to the LDs - a figure very close to the average income in this country and one which can reasonably be called a 'living wage'. (If anyone wants to argue about low pay, I've got a lifetime of experience on that front so bring it on...)

Education is a right and it should be free. In the 1950s when a few tens of thousands of people went to university this was a wonderful dream and one anyone could support. Why shouldn't rich people be educated at the expense of the rest of us? In the modern world hundreds of thousands of people go to university, which is a major achievement and a widening of opportunity - but its expensive and the money has to be found somehow. For sure the majority of people going to university will earn higher than average salaries but many will not. Is it reasonable for that stalwart of the tabloids, a single mum bringing up her kids with part-time work, to support them? It is surely far better to ask people to pay for their choice in higher education when they have finished it and when they have a job which is paying them enough to allow them to do so reasonably.

Remember that the country is broke, there is no money for most services, Labour has layered on PFI debt across the land and spent any money left over on grandiose schemes before the election. Carrying on regardless is not an option and if you think otherwise, pop across to Dublin for the weekend - they could do with the cash.

For me the Damascene moment in all this is thinking about what universities are and how they have changed out of all recognition from those halcyon days of Kingsley Amis and jolly japes in the quad. I work for a modern one and I went to a polytechnic - by choice because I knew I would get a better education there. Both institutions have embraced modern learning, including part-time and vocationally focused learning alongside traditional academic subjects. Education has to map on to the economy, not at the expense of more academic pursuits but complementary to them. Two year Degrees have been touted, to cries of horror from traditionalists. Why? Surely the bottom line in all this is choice and if someone wants to do a two year Degree so that they can start to work, why shouldn't they be able to. Higher education must evolve, just like every other sector. Shall we mention ivory towers here or do you get the picture?

My prediction is that we will have roughly the same number of universities in 10 years, with some less well performing ones having closed or merged. Some will have to face up to the fact that they were never viable. The vast majority of universities which remain will have more students, including more from poorer backgrounds. They will have more minority students - the story today of 21 Oxford colleges having no black students at all is frankly disgusting and shows starkly how appalling the 'old' sector is generally - and more part-time students. Most will be more vocationally focused and all will offer a range of course models. People whose blood is boiling at this point might reflect on the runaway success of the utterly flexible Open University since its creation with the aim of making university accessible.

And yes, students will pay for their education. Never forget that Labour introduced fees in the first place, all we are seeking to do is to make the system fairer, which this policy does. The alternative is upfront Labour fees, students saddled with debts from day one of their courses, less well off people put off education altogether and more of the same. So after much deliberation, I'll say it once, I'll say it loud, the proposals on student fees are the right thing to do here and now.

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