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.