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The Politics of Blah Blah Blah

Saturday 11th December 2010

You may have noticed that the tuition fees fracas has provoked a certain amount of ire on these pages. Well here comes some more.

I’ve been angered by a lot of the opposition to the increase in fees. Now, that’s not to say that I think that there are no good arguments against them, or even that I completely agree with what the government is doing. What’s annoyed me are the specific arguments that have been used by most of the opposition, led by the NUS and Labour. The repeated misconceptions, half-truths, and downright lies that have been put forward and then regurgitated by – it seems – the majority of the student population. The irrational, unreasonable, illogical attitude that’s been prevalent is the absolute worst kind of politics, yet is sadly the most common.

What am I talking about? Take the argument that fees will make it impossible for poorer students to go to university. Does this actually hold water? Well, as with the present system, the fees will be partnered with student loans. The loans are available to all undergraduate students, and cover the full costs of fees as well as living costs. Students from poorer backgrounds will receive grants to help them with their studies (and lets not forget that it’s these grants that the NUS proposed should be cut, instead of increasing the fees. Make things better for the middle classes, to the detriment of poorer students. And yet they drone on about fairness). There is absolutely no reason why anyone will be financially incapable of going to university, so when they claim this the NUS are either being massively stupid, or deliberately lying.

A further claim is that graduates won’t be able to afford the crippling debt, but that doesn’t really hold much water either. The loans are designed so that this will never be the case. Graduates repay only when they earn over £21,000 (£6k higher than the threshold the NUS propose, by the way). Above this level, the repayments are set at 9% of earnings – the same as the current rate. Additionally, it gets written off after a certain number of years. I absolutely reject the argument that this is unreasonable, especially when it’s actually more generous than what’s proposed by the NUS!

The NUS and Labour both back a graduate tax (here are the proposals favoured by the NUS). If implemented, a graduate tax would actually work in much the same way as the fee & loan system (from the point of view of graduates, anyway). In fact in many ways the government’s system is better, when things like the higher repayment threshold and the benefit of direct payments to universities – rather than to the Treasury’s coffers – are considered. Now, I’m not arguing that this is the best thing to do. In fact it probably isn’t. But to oppose the government whilst supporting a graduate tax is simply the most bizarre and inconsistent position to hold on this issue.

And yet, this does seem to be the position of a lot of people. I’m not entirely surprised at Labour; their lack of principle and their unreasonableness are well documented. But I’m so angry with the NUS, the body which is meant to stick up for students, for absolutely failing to represent their best interests.

I mean, the education system in the UK – not just universities – is broken. For instance, there was an article in the Guardian the other day about the low number of black students accepted to Oxbridge. Now, the paper implied it’s racism. It isn’t, but it does highlight an issue which is arguably even worse. That is, that kids from poorer backgrounds tend to have access to poorer schools. The education they receive is not up to scratch, so they have little chance to earn a place at a prestigious university. Unlike many, I don’t have a problem with inequality of wealth; but I do have a massive problem with inequality of opportunity. I don’t care if there are some people in society who are vastly richer than others, as long as everyone has the opportunity to try to do that.

For all their efforts during their 13 years, Labour utterly failed to improve this situation; in fact by many measures, their actions made things worse. So frankly I have no time for them or their supporters when they unthinkingly oppose all that the coalition does, and I will not abide them pretending that they are the party of “fairness”. It simply isn’t the case. As for the NUS, their opposition to fees seems to be more to do with concern for “the squeezed middle classes” than any real concern for improving access to universities. If they genuinely cared about that, they would’ve been running campaigns to change the perception amongst the worse off that student debt is bad, and they wouldn’t have opposed the grants available for those people.

There’s more to all of this though, when you consider what this debacle tells us about the state of politics in the UK. And yes, this is where I become hugely biased, but hopefully not wrong…

Next year there will be a referendum on the alternative vote, but I would wager that many of those who were present at the protests against the fees would actually support full proportional representation. Which would have the effect of making coalition governments ever more likely.

The thing about coalition governments is that they involve compromise. That means that the parties involved may not always be able to do everything they said they would in their manifesto, and in fact may have to support stuff they oppose in order to get stuff they like. Over the last few months the Liberal Democrats have seen this happen quite often, to the extent that it seems that Nick Clegg has been elevated to the level of a sort of hate figure. The Lib Dems are lambasted for selling out, for backing things they didn’t support in their manifesto, and mostly for propping up Those Bastard Tories (and by the way, the persistent insistence by many that the Conservative party are evil toffs who take great delight in fucking over the poor and who only care for themselves… It’s stupid. Mind-numbingly ignorant, and hugely tedious. It’s so childish to pretend that those you disagree with are in fact out to do bad. Ever thought that they want to make things better too, just that they disagree with how to do it?)

Well guess what? That’s the price of coalition. The Lib Dems are compromising, yes. But so are the Tories. There really is a lot of good stuff being done by the government (and bad stuff that’s not been done!), that’s been influenced by the Liberal Democrat ministers. That’s meant Conservatives and Liberal Democrats reneging on some manifesto commitments.

As it is, people have chosen not to recognise this. Coalition government – especially in an economic climate such as this one – is nuanced. It requires people to look at the detail, to be pragmatic as well as idealistic. It’d be great if we could make university free, charge no taxes to anyone, and give everyone a mansion set in acres of gardens. But sadly we have to live in the real world, to balance conflicting needs to come up with a solution with the best compromise. Unfortunately our political discussion seems to have dissolved into extremes; into black and white, us and them. The forces of good against the forces of evil. This inability or unwillingness to accept compromise is pathetic, divisive, and ultimately damaging. And looking at the student protests, that’s what’s pissed me off so much.

Posted at 6:19 pm | Posted In: PoliticsRant Tagged:

3 Comments:

Jenny

Monday 20th December 2010, 10:51 am

I don’t think anyone worth listening to is actually saying that the increase in fees is going to make it impossible for poorer students to go to university. What they are saying, actually, is that it’s going to make it far less likely that poorer students will choose to go to university and come out saddled with a huge debt. Sure, it’s not a painful debt to pay off, but it is huge, and surveys have proven [citation out there somewhere, cba] that this will have a huge effect on the willingness of students from a poorer background to try. I know it would have had that effect on me, and my parents are not poor by the standards of many.

The thing about a graduate tax is that it is linked to earnings far more. So that you pay more if you have in theory got more out of going to university. This might mean that someone on a six figure salary may well end up paying more than the the £27K their education at least nominally cost. Personally, if that was me, it wouldn’t bother me that much, because it would give opportunities to others to have a better education after me.

Furthermore I don’t think the article does imply racism in the least. It’s talking about the profile of application from different socioeconomic and racial backgrounds and showing why it is that fewer black students get into Oxbridge. I have to say I completely agree with you on the equality/equality-of-opportunity thing. It’s not a problem if one family earns more than another; what is a problem is that this inequality becomes entrenched because of the lack of opportunities for ‘betterment’ (if you will) if you live in certain areas and go to certain schools compared to elsewhere. I think that’s deeply unfair.

As for ‘That means that the parties involved may not always be able to do everything they said they would in their manifesto, and in fact may have to support stuff they oppose in order to get stuff they like’ – I don’t have a problem with coalition government in theory, but what seems to be happening here is that the Lib Dems are getting very nearly nothing in terms of promises they made. And worse still, Nick Clegg is – let’s make no bones about this – a sort of proto-Tory. Nothing wrong with that except that he lied to us when he promised no increase in tuition fees in his manifesto. That was a promise he never meant to keep, as the Guardian exposed a few weeks ago (again, link, somewhere, but I’m meant to be packing and not internetting so you’ll have to delve into the archives of hte Guardian to find it). And it’s not hte only one.

The coalition isn’t working not becuase coalition isn’t a good idea but because this particular coalition is a sham.

Now I really must put some slightly more socially acceptable clothes on and call a cab.

Dickie

Monday 20th December 2010, 2:49 pm

I agree that no-one worth listening to is saying it’ll make it impossible. But unfortunately, people like Labour and the NUS are saying it, and then other people have been repeating it! I also agree that the perception of student debt is likely to put poorer students off. But it shouldn’t, and so the energies of people like the NUS would be put to much more profitable use if they tried to get people to understand that, rather than spread damaging lies. It’s people like that who are more likely to stop people going to university, not the Coalition government (or the Labour government, when they initially introduced fees).

“The thing about a graduate tax is that it is linked to earnings far more”

Ish. Think of the fees as a capped graduate tax, where you only pay upto a certain limit, depending on how long you were at university or the course you did, etc. Practically, from the point of view of the student, there’s almost no difference there! There are other reasons why (I think) fees are better though; for instance it’s better for money to be paid to universities, rather than to the taxman.

The point is, the two are very, very similar from the customer’s (i.e. student) perspective. In fact, fees work better for students than a graduate tax, as they are capped. And yet the graduate tax is the favoured option?! You’d be happy to pay another £27k in tax, but not £27k fees? That simply doesn’t make sense.

“This might mean that someone on a six figure salary may well end up paying more than the the £27K their education at least nominally cost”

Well, they already will. Because they’ll pay more tax anyway… (unless they are smart enough to find a way to avoid it ;)

“the Lib Dems are getting very nearly nothing in terms of promises they made”

Which would be why the Tory right (people like David Davis) are annoyed at the Conservative leadership for giving too much to the Liberal Democrats?

Liberal Democrat policies have had an influence on plenty; arguably more than they have a right to, given their share of the vote! Things like income tax, electoral reform (!), prisons (arguably the coalition has enabled Clarke to take a more moderate line), civil liberties (e.g. child detention in IRCs), schools (the pupil premium), pension reform… It’s rubbish to say that the Lib Dems have got nothing from the coalition, although I think the reason people have that idea is because they haven’t been too pro-active in pinpointing their achievements in government. Fingers crossed that will change.

“Nick Clegg is – let’s make no bones about this – a sort of proto-Tory”

Rubbish! He is a Liberal. Granted, some of his economically-liberal views sort of fit in with Conservative economic opinion, but even then not completely. If you read things like The Liberal Moment or his essay in The Orange Book (actually that’s a book well worth reading if you have any particular interest in politics, as much of the current leadership of the Lib Dems contributed to it. Helps to understand where they come from, what they believe), you start to see that he’s absolutely not a “proto-Tory”.

“he lied to us when he promised no increase in tuition fees in his manifesto. That was a promise he never meant to keep”

Well, the thing is, the Liberal Democrats (as with any political party) are themselves a coalition. And the policies of this particular coalition are largely defined by the votes of the members (well, the members with voting rights); they are the Liberal Democrats, after all! The leaders don’t actually get to set policy in the same way that the leaders of Labour or the Tories do, they have to argue for a policy and see if the party agree. In this case, the party were against tuition fees, and Clegg apparently in favour. What do you expect him to say then in the election? “This is our manifesto. I don’t really agree with bits of it, but you should definitely vote for it!”. Hmm.

To sum up:

“this particular coalition is a sham”

Bollocks! :-P

Dickie

Thursday 30th December 2010, 1:37 am

“the Lib Dems are getting very nearly nothing in terms of promises they made”

As well as my comments above, here is a quick summary of Lib Dem achievements in government.

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