Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Some good things about David Willetts' statement on the Browne Report

There are some silver linings in a very big cloud:

I felt so proud of Charles Kennedy, standing up to say that he can't support the proposal as he is closely associated with the policy of free tuition, having led the party through two elections. He asked Willetts to ensure that the playing field on research was not skewed within the UK.

And then we have the new poster boy for science Julian Huppert, Liberal Democrat MP for Cambridge, asking whether it'll be more difficult for graduates, particularly on lower incomes, to get mortgages and whether this will be a deterrent to those from poorer backgrounds. It's good to see our MPs take up this sort of practical issue, as ever understanding what life is like for real people.

Whatever you might think of this scheme, and I'm sitting here feeling really sad about it, it is a darned sight better than anything the Conservatives or Labour would have brought in on their own.

I suspect that the Tories would have rejected Browne and let the free market reign with no measures to help those on lower incomes.

And hands up if you really think Labour would have rejected Browne's proposals? They were champing at the bit to introduce fees and top up fees in the first place. Their hypocrisy on this issue has been staggering. They promised not to introduce fees and then, guess what......... How dare they lecture us on broken pledges?

It's the Liberal Democrats who have ensured that there is a cap on tuition fees when Browne suggested an unlimited figure.

It's the Liberal Democrats who have ensured that there are more measures to help those on the lowest income, like more help for living costs for the poorest students.

It's the Liberal Democrats who have made sure that if a university insists on charging more than £6000, that they will have to ensure greater access for poorer students.How meaningful those measures will be and how they will be enforced remains to be seen, but it's still a clear sign of  Liberal Democrat influence.

It's the Liberal Democrats who have made sure that there are variable rates of interest depending on income so the lowest earning pay less in interest.

Despite all that, though, I really think the whole idea is a mistake. Why couldn't we use our costed policy to phase tuition fees out? I think we are setting a time bomb to go off in 50 years time when students, with kicking the backside of £50,000 of debt to pay off (in fees and living costs) as well as coping with high housing costs, possibly not being able to afford a mortgage till much later in their careers as that outstanding debt will be taken into consideration, will simply not have been able to save anything like enough for their pensions. That's not to mention any contributions they will have had to make towards the care of their parents.

Many people today don't have a sufficient retirement pot and I suspect that this will get worse as time goes on and we'll have a lot of very poor pensioners in the 2050s and 60s. My granny and grandad spent most of their later years in a two roomed flat up 4 treacherous flights of stairs with no bath.  The toilet was at the foot of the stairs. I can't remember them ever going away anywhere  I don't want to see us go back to that sort of poverty for people in their retirement. My granny was able to get warm, comfortable sheltered housing in the 80s, which she moved into at the age of 80 herself, but she'd spent 20 years in these conditions. We've argued for so long against short termism in politics but we are introducing something that is going to have really bad long term consequences.

My other concern is that if your parents are rich enough, they will be able to pay the fees upfront, so avoiding the need for taking out the loan in the first place. This is hardly fair.

Although I recognise the Liberal Democrat input into this announcement, I still think we should be honouring our pledge on tuition fees. In the 2007 Holyrood election, there were only two bits of our policy that got any publicity. We had loads of good policy, but unfortunately it was an hour of PE a day in primary schools that took top billing. Secondly, and always mentioned in the context of coalition negotiations was what I thought was an extremely ill advised pledge to vote against a referendum on independence.

Even I, who am relaxed about the prospect of such a referendum, felt that having nailed our colours so truculently to the mast, we should stick to our word. If we had reneged on that pledge, we would never have heard the end of it.  The issue of free higher education is something that's much dearer to the Liberal Democrat spirit and philosophy and the abandonment of this pledge is something I find incredibly depressing.

I just hope that the inevitable e-mail we'll get from Cowley Street is filled with something useful and not the utterly patronising, useless, bland stuff we've been getting so far.

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