Thursday, 4 November 2010

Browne and Higher Ed

As a Lib Dem, I am supposed to be outraged by the Browne plan to fund universities. Actually, I'm not.  His recommendations seem fairly innocuous to me.  As far as I can see, it’s a capped graduate tax. You don’t pay upfront, what you do pay bears a relation to the cost of your course, you only start paying back if you are earning enough. I can see how Lib Dem MPs who signed the pledge not to increase tuition fees are in an awkward situation. Personally, I felt it was a fairly risky pledge at the time, and not one that was particularly liberal or democratic.  This current scheme is much fairer than the current one or the previous no-fees one.I think it's reasonable to argue that it isn't an increase in fees, it's a capped graduate tax, but good luck getting any of the NUS hacks to listen to reason.

I think the policy of abolishing all tuition fees and having universities funded out of general taxation is misguided. It’s not progressive at all. What it means is that poor people who have never been to university end up subsidising three years of living costs for some of the wealthiest and most privileged people in society, and also pay for the tuition fees that will ensure that person earns more over their career than they could ever hope for.  True, all of society benefits from having university graduates whether we are graduates or not: but I believe most of the studies show that a great deal of the financial benefit of studying at university accrues to the graduate, so it is only fair to ask them to pay more.

Obviously, it’s true that Lib Dems campaigned on abolishing tuition fees,  and so a lot will come down to whether you see the implementation of Browne as being a tuition fee or a kind of capped graduate tax. That will matter a lot in people’s perceptions of whether the Lib Dems have sold out or not.  For me, the important thing is that we don’t end up with a system like America’s, where you have to pay colossal fees up front and then start paying them back mortgage style the month after you graduate. I think that really does penalise kids from poorer families.  This system will not do that.

One final thing - it's been said a lot that this system will make people think twice about going to university. Let us hope so. Let us hope that sixth form students really will think very carefully about whether a university degree is right for them, whether it really is worth the money, and which subject will be the best for them.  What would also be good was if this system would make students think twice about how they should spent their time once at university - reading books and going to seminars, or going out and getting drunk.

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