Saturday, 13 November 2010

Tuition fees are the right answer to university funding problems

It wasn't hard to feel sorry for the 50,000 students and lecturers who marched against cuts on Wednesday, in defence of their right to a fairly funded education. The vast majority of demonstrators protested peacefully, underpinned by a serious and coherent political point. But it is understandable that a sizeable group of the electorate should feel let down by a political leader who promised the earth when he knew he'd never have to deliver on his pledge. Now the Liberal Democrats are finally in power, Clegg is eating his words.

I was in the House of Commons in 2004 on the night that the Higher Education Bill, which introduced top-up fees, passed its second reading. It was clear then that Labour was already well down the road of enforcing a greater personal contribution to the cost of higher education. The Coalition's policy takes these Blairite goals further.

It's true that Lord Browne's report recommended that there should be no cap on fees at all, and the only reason that this was not implemented was because selling that to the electorate wasn't palatable. The Coalition has to balance imposing even more personal debt when the country is supposed to be paying off a record structural deficit – and paying for it by cutting vital public services.

But despite public anger, the arguments for a £6,000 cap on tuition fees have never been stronger. The government is in no doubt that higher education has a value. It has also made a firm commitment to ensuring that students from the poorest families have exactly the same opportunities to study at not just any university, but also Russell Group universities which on paper would be closed to them. It has made a significant policy break in deciding that those who decide not to go to university should not have to subsidised by those that do. Self-funding, and the subsequent debt incurred post-graduation by fees, is a fairer prospect than any of the alternatives. A graduate tax would be an education penalty on an individual for life, but the cost of a degree can be paid off over five, ten or fifteen years depending on earnings.

Those who protest are wrong in assuming that thousands of pounds of fees would have to be paid up on day one of an undergraduate degree course. If it were desirable to attack the government for landing all students with a massive bill, upfront, for their education, I'd be doing just that. But, higher education, in theory and at to a certain extent in practice, means better and more fulfilling job prospects.

The irony of the case against fees is that the middle classes - who find home ownership and the inevitable mortgage so desirable - cannot comprehend the value of a degree as something to be invested in and paid for over a long period of time. Debt is a part of life, and it was absolutely right that Labour invested in higher education and introduced fees to fund it – recognising that investment in education is worthwhile not just for the individual, but for society as a whole.

The protests will mean nothing unless they're attached to genuine anger against the scale of the cuts – an 80% reduction in university teaching budgets is counter productive and vandalises the fabric of the excellent institutions already struggling to survive. Students and lecturers alike should continue to fight back - because it's not yet clear what damage the funding cuts could do.

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