Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Liberal Democrat MPs - please say no to tuition fee rise

It's not  a great time to be 11. It wasn't in 1979 when Mrs Thatcher's axe started to fall. There was barely a book in my school that wasn't held together with sellotape and shared with about 3 others at a time.

11 year olds living in England face a much more difficult life than their parents had. Those aspiring to higher education could face unlimited bills for tuition, which they'll be paying back at 9% of salary - that's quite some tax hike - if Lord Browne's proposals go through. You're looking at students coming out of university owing £30,000 plus.

So, they have to pay that back, as well as face a housing market where it's increasingly difficult to find affordable housing. How many will be able to buy their own property? Will the private rented sector be sufficient to cope? It isn't now, and there's no sign of any local or national government making enough progress on providing sufficient social housing.

On top of all that, as they're raising their own children, they may yet face the issue of having to finance their parents' care, as well as providing for their own pension in later years. In an almost indecent haste to ensure that our children don't pay our credit card bill, we have to make sure that this Government doesn't leave them with nothing at the end of their working lives half a century down the road.

It makes you think as well that over the last quarter of a century, we've built up an economy with a huge retail and leisure sector. What happens when people don't have as much money to spend on luxuries? That surely causes problems from the jobs in the shops right down to the suppliers who make (or, sadly, import) the goods. Where are all the jobs going to be for these debt ridden graduates?  The way our economy has been built on a foundation of sand is testament to the failure of successive governments to put sustainability at the heart of what they do.

Lord Browne's review presents a dilemma for Liberal Democrat MPs.

I'd already looked it up in the Coalition Agreement. Even after five months, it's the electronic equivalent of a well thumbed document. The sections relating to universities and funding are on page 31 and 32.
If the response by the Government to Lord Browne's report is one that Liberal Democrats cannot accept, arrangements will be made to enable Liberal Democrats to abstain in any vote
This is the pledge that Liberal Democrat candidates across the country signed during the Election campaign in May.
 “I pledge to vote against any increase in fees in the next parliament and to pressure the government to introduce a fairer alternative”
I expect that candidates of all parties will be signing fewer pledges in the future and certainly not as specific as this.

The thing is that this pledge is completely in line with our philosophy. We believe passionately in free education. We believe that society as a whole benefits from it. Ok, so a doctor earns a fair whack, but they also save lives, find cures for diseases, find ways of dealing with pain and make those conditions they can't cure yet more bearable. You don't go into medicine if you're after an easy ride in life. You give back a lot in terms of hours and effort over the years. It's not all perpetual rounds of golf and foreign holidays.

Sticking with the medical arena, when I looked into becoming a nurse, I wouldn't have had to go to university. Now nursing is becoming a profession where a degree is required.

Look at the comparative rates between doctors' pay and nurses'. Very early on in their career, a doctor is likely to be earning more than a nurse ever will. Most nurses are on bands 5-7 of the Agenda for Change pay scales, with their pay varying from £21,000 to £40,000. Bear in mind that most nurses are women and so are more likely to take time out for having children so any loan they have to pay back may take longer, so under Browne's proposals they'll pay back more as well as have less career earnings. Progressive, huh?

With the unlimited tuition fees proposed by Browne, you get a sense immediately that the students from affluent backgrounds will go to the elite institutions while those from poorest backgrounds will be confined to where fees are cheapest. It shouldn't be like that. There should be no financial or social barriers to the brightest brains going to elite institutions, regardless of background.

In Scotland, students going to Scottish universities pay no tuition fees at all. This is entirely down to the Liberal Democrats who brought that to the Coalition with Labour in 1999. That, to my mind, is how it should stay. It was good that the entire Holyrood front bench came out in force to argue that point on Saturday at Scottish Liberal Democrat Conference. That was an amazing debate which I will write about more fully for Liberal Democrat Voice on Thursday.

If our MPs accept Browne,though, it puts our MSPs and Scottish candidates in a very difficult position. No matter what they do in the Holyrood election next year, reneging on such a key election pledge at Westminster would be a gift to our opponents.

I want my daughter and her classmates to have the opportunity to study free of charge to gain skills that will benefit the whole country.

I think the Government should lock Vince, all other party spokespeople, NUS and other interested parties away to find another solution. The Browne Report is simply not good enough. We need to look at ensuring quality - and that might mean cutting numbers who can go to uni. I can deal with that as long as it's the brightest who get to go. We need to look at getting more from business into universities - but we also need to protect the humanities and arts. These are things worth knowing about and the process of learning about them teaches valuable skills. Maybe we need to be more flexible and look at different options of taking a degree by using technology. I don't know what the answer is, but I know that Browne is not enough.  It's not right that graduates should have to pay the entire costs, with interest, for learning skills that benefit us all.

I expect there to be some moves to reintroduce fees or a graduate contribution in Scotland in the next few years. I will resist them with vigour. Otherwise it may well be that my daughter's only hope of long term prosperity is if Bob and I do the decent thing and die before our home is sold to pay for our care costs.

If Labour thought a Graduate Tax was better, you have to ask why they introduced fees. Their response has no credibility whatsoever, like pretty much everything else they've said since May.

I am very pleased that the likes of Tim Farron, Greg Mulholland and Julian Huppert are prepared to vote against rather than abstain from a vote to implement Browne's proposals. I'm sure that there will be more and it's important that they hold firm on this.


Anonymous said...

Such a good post, with much that I can agree with, let down only by your needless attack on Labour's graduate tax proposal.

When the Labour Government introduced tuition fees, it did so against the wishes of the party (perhaps an analagous situation to the present one. It has been a policy which the party has long wanted to reverse. Now we have a leader who listens to his party we have chosen to do so? Whats wrong about that?

Anonymous said...

A good post, with much that I can agree with, let down only by your needless attack on Labour.

The last Labour Government introduced tuition fees against the wishes of its party, and it has been a policy that the party has wanted to reverse. We now have a leader who listens to his party, and is in favour of policies which the membership support. Whats so wrong about that?

Douglas McLellan said...

This entire situation was inevitably. Probably from the 1970s and certainly after the 1992 reforms.

What is the purpose of a university education? In the 1970s it was to propel someone away from a basic job into the fabled land of social mobility. The world was changing and the jobs that offered social mobility (accountants, lawyers, doctors) etc were in demand so more people could study and easily become one.

But what does a degree mean now? In truth for most jobs it means basic competency and ability to learn. Apart from the relatively few jobs that need a degree, what purpose does it serve anyone to have a degree? Access to a standard job is about it.

*In the past* a degree offered social mobility but the problem is that all the jobs that offer the higher wages that social mobility is based on are over-subscribed. For a degree to offer a person from a poorer background social mobility it is obvious that a person from a richer background would have to fall in the social mobility measurement. And that rarely happens.

Where has this idea that free higher education is a 'right' come from. I can't see where this has actually been implemented.

I think that tuition fees are wrong. The idea that the 1st question a potential student has to ask is not 'am I clever enough' but instead 'how much to my parents earn' is an appalling concept.

But universties need money and people dont like paying a lot in taxes. So the money needs to come from somewhere. I say that the Scottish Lib Dem Conference was wrong to reject the idea of a Graduate Contribution.

Neil M said...

I agree with much of this post, and I certainly have no difficulty in signing up to the underlying philosophy that you put so eloquently – “There should be no financial or social barriers to the brightest brains going to elite institutions, regardless of background”.
Your medical analogy is a good one (although we might leave it to another day to discuss whether a nursing career ought to require a degree). I do not agree that the outcome scales are weighted entirely in favour of society. Yes, you are right to say that we get a lot out of doctors but let us not forget that the average G.P. is now earning around £100,000 per annum. That is a truly staggering amount. Are you really saying that in some form or another they should not repay the investment that the taxpayer has made in them? Personally, I believe that it must be possible to do that in a way that does not lead to the placing of barriers in front of potential students from less well off backgrounds.
I also feel very strongly that the current discussions at Westminster about tuition fees in English universities is absolutely no damn business of Scottish MPs. This is what devolution is all about. When you write “If our MPs accept Browne,though, it puts our MSPs and Scottish candidates in a very difficult position. No matter what they do in the Holyrood election next year, reneging on such a key election pledge at Westminster would be a gift to our opponents.” I think you are accepting the sort of ya boo politics that I believe the Liberal Democrats are supposed to stand up against. You cannot have it both ways. Either we have Scottish solutions for Scottish issues or we do not. If other parties try to make capital out of it then it is up to Liberal Democrat candidates to set the record straight rather than using it as an excuse to do the sort of thing that we criticised the Tories (Poll Tax) and the Labour Party (Foundation Schools) for doing.

Maelo Manning said...

I feel so disappointed today. I am 11 and I agree with what you say.

burkesworks said...

With this statement from my LibDem MP, the moment I turn my back on the Party draws a little nearer, and it hurts like hell to have to say it.


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