Tag Archives: Ed Miliband

Student Tuition Fees: The Weird Thing

When tuition fees were introduced in Labour’s first year in office I actually marched on Parliament in protest.  At the time I had just completed my Masters and was clinging on for one last year as my University’s Student Union President (still the most fun ‘job’ I have ever had).

Every press release I sent out, every letter of protest that was written, every person who gave me the opportunity to bend-their-ear got the same message.  It seemed to me to be self-evident that the introduction of student fees could only:

  • Lead to lower take-up of Higher Ed across the board
  • More worryingly – lead to even greater social exclusion for those from poorer backgrounds
  • Lead to University closures and a diminishing of Britain’s academic standing

The only crumbs of comfort I could think of was that if students were paying they would become far more fussy and demanding which would drive up the standard of tuition.

Here’s the weird thing:  I’ve never been more wrong with a set of predictions in my life.  The take up of higher education went up and up.  This includes an increase in take-up from people from disadvantaged backgrounds.  Far from closures the number of higher education institutions and overall capacity increased.  I was wrong on every count.  The anecdotal evidence I have is that even my certainty that tuition standards and one-on-one teaching time would improve was  off.  I still find just how wrong I was quite sobering.

I obviously mention this now, because with today’s announcement that fees will increase to between £6,ooo and £9,000 per year the current crop of Student Union Presidents up and down the land are making the very same points as the once fresher-faced me.

Despite being proved spectacularly wrong on this issue in the ‘90s, to be honest I am still as nervous this time around.  I can’t sit here all smug that I got through the system with fees paid for and a maintenance grant because  I now have to worry about how my own two kids will afford the opportunities I had.  At some point we surely must hit the tipping point?  There has to be a cost that will put people off?  The headline £27k for a degree before living costs does sound overwhelming.

This prompted me to dig a little deeper into the detail of what is proposed.  As is so often the case the reality of the detail isn’t quite as alarming as the screaming headline – but it is still scary.  The proposals have students only repaying their loans at 9% of their income at a real rate of interest when they earn £21,000, up to inflation plus 3% for those earning £41,000 or more.   Any outstanding loans are written off after 30 years.  If you don’t end up in employment, you don’t pay anything back.  In terms of the technicalities of repayment and pressure to repay these proposals are actually a step forward from the current arrangements – though of course the overall amount to be repaid is much higher – but a step forward nonetheless.  A kind of ‘no-win, no fee’ arrangement.

It is still a whopping burden though.  I really do pity the kids who start life with that kind of debt, on top of already silly marginal tax rates to pay for the excesses of their parents’ generation.

Of course, Labour will oppose these moves.  That’s the nature and job of opposition.  There is no need to put forward an alternative, you can just yell ‘nay’.  The media will ignore that it was the Labour Government (actually Mandelson) who commissioned the Browne Report in 2009 that led to these changes.  In many ways this is history repeating itself.   In 1996 the then Conservative Government appointed Ron Dearing to do an ‘independent’ report knowing full well the recommendations that Blair and Blunkett would inherit and which led to the first tuition fees.  This time Mandelson and G. Brown knew full well what would be recommended by Lord Browne and that whoever won would have to go with it.  One silver lining for the loser of this last election was always going to be not having to catch and deal with being lobbed this particular ticking grenade.

The Coalition have actually watered down Browne’s recommendations a bit.  There is a cap on fees (albeit a quite high one), and there is more money for bursaries for the poor and early repayment levies so that the richer folk can’t get out of paying their share by paying off their loan early.

It is what it is.  The choice was always either to revisit student funding or cut back on HE provision.  Access to Higher Ed benefits the whole of society and so it was the right choice to revisit funding.

The changes are necessary but still depressing.  All I can do is hope that the weird thing happens again and that effects of student financing policy continue to be subject to counter-intuitive economic freakery that prove me, and all those earnest fresh-faced student union presidents, totally wrong.

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Labour’s Bonkers Shadow Cabinet Selection

The road to hell is paved with good intentions.  I suppose that line could be New Labour’s epitaph.  However, it’s still alive and well in the party’s internal democracy.  As with the leadership election rules, the system for selecting their Shadow Cabinet is well-meaning and intended to be democratic.  That is a laudable ambition.  It is certainly something the Conservative Party hasn’t cracked.  Nevertheless, it is difficult to argue with Jack Straw that Labour’s means to this ends, when you take a step back, is frankly ‘barking mad‘.

Poor Ed.  He can’t pick his own team.  Instead he has to go through the next two years surrounded by a Shadow Cabinet put in place thanks to nods, winks and pushes from politicking Unions helping advise their members on where to put their 1s, 2s and 3s.   Straw is convinced the quality of the opposition benches are hurt, he says:

“And what it means is that of the 18 or 19 people in shadow cabinet, probably a dozen [are] capable of being in the Cabinet, half a dozen are not[..]”

So Ed is going into battle with a couple of even dudder duds in his armoury.

The other huge issue for Ed is that when you look at the top ten in the list as finally elected – not a single one of them backed Ed as first preference.  Think about that.  Not one of the top ten members of his team thought he was the best man for leader.

He has his work cut out and starts handicapped by his own party rules.   We should let him get on with it.  As Napoleon used to nearly say “Never interrupt your enemy when he is doing a good job of defeating himself”.

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Ed Miliband and the Battle for the Centre Ground

British Politics is a curious thing.  Elections are won in the UK by convincing people who describe themselves as ‘of-the-centre’ to vote for you.  You don’t get committed right or left wingers as swing-voters.   The hardcore left will vote Labour.  The committed right will vote Tory.  At the extreme end of either party you may get some lefties who lose faith and run off to nutty Marxist outfits or righties sulking off to UKIP but the numbers lost at these fringes are nothing compared to the numbers to be won in the middle.

The problem both parties face is that their grassroot activists, by definition and nature, do not generally tend to sit in the centre.   They naturally wish to drag their party toward the relevant pole.  The challenge for an aspiring leader of either of the main British Parties (yup, I only count the two) is to –

  • a) Convince your party that you have the left/right credentials to protect and maintain the party’s core political compass
  • b) Convince the public that they needn’t fear the ‘common wisdom’ version of the downsides of a lurch to the left or right, i.e. fear crippling ‘Tax and Spend’ misery associated with a big left swing, or fear the brutality of an un-regulated free market leading to orphans-cleaning-chimneys-for-tuppence with an unchecked lurch to the right.

Blair was the master of this and that is why he won three elections despite Iraq.  Cameron got it.  Brown didn’t.  And that’s why we now have a blue PM. It’s a heck of a juggling act.  As I say in my philosophy page – although the battle for the centre ground usually gets characterised as one of competence over political difference there is real substance between how centre-right and a centre-left perspectives manifest themselves in actual policies.  Our Current coalition is proving that a Centre-Right government can still be very radical in approach – thank goodness they just about won over the centre this time around.

Back to Ed Miliband.  He’s won the Labour leadership.  Congratulations.  He’s cracked part (a) of the equation and convinced the party (I’ll put aside for now the dodgy way they do leadership elections).  The challenge for him now is cracking part (b) and carrying the public.

My guarded instinct at the moment is that he will not be able to.  As an active Conservative obviously I find that a good thing.  I watched his speech on the news last night and nothing about his body-language and delivery gave me any sense that he has the gravitas or charisma to project himself as a credible leader to those swing-voters.  He looked like a rabbit in headlights.  His awkward gawky/geeky style screams policy wonk rather than leader.

That said, the reason I’m guarded is that if Labour are patient then there is plenty of time for him to grow into the role.   Cameron definitely enjoyed the extra few years to shift the lightweight tag after Brown bottled it in 2008.  Ed M. has similar time.  He also has the big benefit of being in opposition during a very rough economic period.  One thing he has over his brother is that he is not personally as tainted with the causes of these tough times – nobody in the public will have clocked him personally as a Labour ‘Top-Tabler’ during the last Government – and perception is more important than reality.  He can and will feign distance and a ‘new start’.

It will be an interesting few months as he tries to define himself to the electorate.  This is all about part B) in the equation.   For all the reasons above I suspect the Ed Miliband that emerges in this phase will be very different to the one that has just defined himself to the party.  He’s started with his interview in the Sunday Telegraph this morning.  Will the Union backers who gifted him the leadership allow him to play this game?  I doubt it.  But that’s the juggling act he now has to try and master- pander to the party and risk loosing the public, or pander to the public and risk loosing the party.  Who’d be a leader!

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