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Posts Tagged: fees

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.

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I Know I’ve Done This To Death, But…

Tuesday 30th November 2010

More student protests? Seriously?

By my count, these are the third round of protests about the proposed student fees increases. I would argue that this only really serves to undermine the credibility (hah!) of those students opposed to the rise, but whatever.

It’s really annoying that there still seems to be very little intelligent discussion about it. It all seems to be based upon bloody-minded opposition to fees, and a complete unwillingness to be pragmatic or to face reality. Students are involved, so I guess I shouldn’t be surprised by this…

Having read around and listened to some of the arguments, it seems to boil down to “students won’t be able to afford it” (see this, for a particularly bad example). I don’t see how that’s the case, given the loans and stuff that are available. No upfront fees and you repay when you earn over £21k… What position do you need to be in to be unable to afford that? In practice, it’s a capped graduate tax (which would probably be supported if it were labelled as such… go figure).

To put forward the “can’t afford it” argument is either wilfully misleading, or stupid. Frankly it pisses me off that it can get so much traction and lead to repeated protests. Hence the rants…

More positive blogging with resume shortly (well, I say shortly; with my record it’ll probably be next June).

Update: Here’s Aaron Porter – president of the NUS – speaking about graduate taxes. Oh dear. Here’s a letter to Porter from Nick Clegg, which is infinitely more sensible.

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Paying My Way

Tuesday 12th October 2010

So, Lord Browne’s report on Higher Education funding was released today. One of his recommendations is for the upper limit on fees to be raised. The government seem to agree this is potentially the best solution, and this seems to have upset people.

As far as I’m aware, there are two sides to the issue of university funding. The first is that universities are saying that they need more money, and the second is that no-one seems to want to pay. Both are understandable. That universities need more money seems to be largely accepted, so all of the discussion seems to focus around who pays for them.

Some say that education should be free, so tuition fees should be scrapped and universities funded out of taxation. I can understand the reasoning, but to my mind it’s pretty unrealistic and even marginally unfair. By getting a decent degree an individual draws certain benefits, be that in higher pay, or in getting a job which they find more enjoyable, or whatever. It therefore seems fair to me that an individual who wants a degree, pays at least something towards the cost of getting that degree. That said, I’d also agree that society as a whole benefits from having graduates – it’s good that we have engineers, doctors, scientists etc around (arts graduates probably less so ;) –  so I also don’t think it’s unreasonable that the state partly subsidises the cost of degrees. Indeed, it’s an investment which almost certainly pays itself back, with interest.

I anticipate that someone might try to throw a curveball by saying that by this logic, I should say that even basic education (and by that I mean up to degree level) shouldn’t be paid for by the state. Exactly the same logic applies though; it’s a massive benefit to us all to have a population with a relatively good education (because it means the workforce is more capable). Additionally, everyone makes use of basic education services, not everyone goes to university. The two things are very different, so it’s easier to justify state financing of “basic” education (although perhaps less easy to justify state provision of that education).

Essentially, I don’t have a problem with fees. But at the same time, I think it’s crucial that the fees charged don’t make it impossible for some people to go to university. It would be tragic if people who would do well at university were stopped because they couldn’t afford it. In that sense, I think that the current loan system is pretty good. You don’t have to pay anything up-front, you only start paying the loan back when you earn over a certain threshold, it tracks inflation so is essentially free, and if you don’t pay it off after a certain period then it gets written off; I wish I could get such generous terms for my postgraduate loan! As far as I can see, the fee and loan system (coupled with the means-tested grants that are available) means that there is no practical financial reason stopping  the vast majority of capable students who want to study a degree, irrespective of their financial background.

To my mind this is fair, even with the possibility of increased fees (in fact increasing the fees makes much sense to me). Especially when compared with the idea of “free” degrees. Because paying out of taxation doesn’t make them free, it just distributes the cost around everyone, and I don’t see why other people should be made to pay (completely) for something which will benefit me.

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For what it’s worth, there are a lot of additional reasons I can think of for not ignoring the recommendations from the report; the argument presented here merely addresses the principle of tuition fees

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