Wednesday, December 08, 2010

There is a radical case for higher tuition fees

I have spent the last few days at my mother's house helping her as she has just had knee replacement surgery. The situation, as we agreed, was rather like an Alan Bennett play.

Because of the peculiarities of Market Harborough topography, you get East Anglian regional television on that side of the town rather than East Midlands. (Here erecting an aerial involves more than just pointing it at Sandy and hoping for the best.) And over those few days Look East, the evening regional news programme, was obsessed with protests against rises against tuition fees by students at Cambridge University.

The more I watched these reports, the more ridiculous those students seemed to me. Here were the offspring of wealthy families venting their "anger" that they were no longer to be given thousands of pounds of other people's money. Objectively, this was a right-wing protest not a left-wing one.

I am old enough to think that middle-class youngsters have an unreasonable sense of entitlement these days. And if you add the symbolism of Oxbridge - I went to a comprehensive and had free school dinners, you know - then these reports were never going to bring out the best in me.

In calmer moments I am a great believer in higher education for its own sake. But that is an increasingly unfashionable view - particularly amongst university vice chancellors. I fear that something along the lines of this week's decision has been inevitable ever since the university sector expanded so rapidly under John Major.
But I do think I was on to something, because I was reminded of a post I wrote in July 2009 asking how Nick Clegg would sell his beloved pupil premium:
what will happen if popular schools in leafy suburbs start excluding children from middle class families in order to take children from working class families who bring more funding with them? And, other things being equal, this is what would happen if the pupil premium were successful.

How would that play with parents in leafy, middle class suburbs? This matters because these are just the sort of areas which tend to elect Liberal Democrat MPs. It happens that Sheffield Hallam is a very good example of this kind of seat.
Well, the pupil premium has gone through almost without comment, but the issues raised by higher university fees are much the same. If we want to make society fairer and to be more progressive - or whatever your favourite buzzwords are - then it is hard to see how spending millions subsidising the higher education of the offspring of wealthy families fits in.

Yet those families may well be Liberal Democrat voters. for Liberal Democrat voters are often just the sort of people who will be disadvantaged by Liberal Democrat policies. In the long run, it is not the students we need to be afraid of at the ballot box so much as their parents.

And, paradoxically, it is those who like to think themselves on the radical wing of the party who tend to be the most vociferous in support of middle-class perks like subsidised degrees and child benefit for higher earners.


While I was writing this post, Simon Hughes has been on Newsnight to announce he would not be voting for tuition fees. But isn't that just asking the people of Bermondsey to pay taxes to send youngsters from more affluent boroughs to university?


Mike said...

You're wrong. It isn't a right-wing protest.

Firstly, it's only progressive concerning fees- not funding in total. The direct taxation that went to fund unis alongside fees is far more progressive than what we will see.

Universities should benefit society. They shouldn't merely exist to add the letters 'BA' to the CVs of its customers. Switching the system so that it is paid like a service by customers removes any incentive to be something more and in fact penalizes universities for doing so, as others who don't will have more of their funding to spend specifically on students. This changes the whole ethos of universities.

It will create a two-tier system, with those whose special prestige allows them to push students hard, and those who can't afford to put students off by not passing all and sundry, dumbing universities down.

An educated country is an end in itself. Universities should facilitate that, they shouldn't merely be to put a stamp on people saying 'market ready'. To deny that universities have any social benefit and fund it with that in mind is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

'Objectively', you're talking rot because it happens to be your party in the firing line. If this was a solely Tory government you lot would be frothing at the mouth. Just like on every other issue. It's funny that for years the Lib Dems thought getting into government would cement them as a serious party, and all it's done is turn you into a joke.

Anonymous said...

In hindsight it just feels like the Lib Dem 'no tuition fees' policy was just cheap way of gaining the student vote. Now the Lib Dems might actually have some influence over the policy they completely backtrack.

I am a graduate paying off a student loan (still got a long way to go) and I feel that anyone who wants a university education should pay for it. I don't begrudge paying for mine.

My beef is actively seeking votes based on such a policy (when, dare I say) there is no perceived chance of the power to influence it and then when some influence and/or power is granted completely reneging on it.

Liberal Neil said...

But the vast majority of students don't come from 'wealthy' families.

Most of them come from families on fairly modest incomes.

They may be 'middle class', but that isn't the same thing as 'wealthy'.

In any event, the new system isn't about what you parents earn, it's about future graduates paying a lot for their degree, in most cases for thirty years, while those of us whose education was paid for by other taxpayers are asked to pay nothing extra.

So a Government which claims to be dealing with the deficit in order to ensure that future generations don't have to pay the cost of this generation's mistakes, make future graduates pay.

Anonymous said...

The shorter Jonathon Calder - I am old now so I think young people and their families should forced into a lifetime of debt so that the government can pay for me to have my free bus travel, cold weather payments and huge inflation and earnings linked pension increase whether I need them or not.

Jonathan Calder said...

Anonymous: It's a shame you couldn't work out how to add your name to your comment. I should have liked to ask you how I apply for my "uge inflation and earnings linked pension". It's the first I have heard of it.

{Captcha: metime]

Paul Walter said...

Thank you for this, Jonathan. It is an excellent point which I haven't seen made elsewhere.

On similar lines I was shouting, fuming and even Naughtying at Channel Four News when there was a posh young woman on who was weighing in against the LibDems, but it was obvious she did not have a clue what the proposal from the government is.

Anonymous said...

Green Party candidate for South West Devon, Vaughan Brean seems to agree with you: “I have a son that is at University at the moment and living at home, he attends about 3 half days per week (if that)it costs a lot of money to run a university that inefficiently and somebody has to pay the bill for a 4 year course that could be covered in 2 (or maybe less), currently that is largely the taxpayer, much of higher education is a gravy train for the Universities and lecturers.”

dreamingspire said...

And I know a student who is living at home, is on a part time Arts degree course (takes 6 years rather than 3) and attends one day per week - but there is a great deal of course work to be done each week. Remind me not to vote for the Greens next time, please.

dreamingspire said...

A more serious comment: the way in which some proposals for mitigating the impact of the new university funding regime were released only this week reminded me that the changeover of government after an election is done differently in the USA: there is a 2 month changeover period, during which the new regime is briefed and hopefully learns. Then they can hit the ground running, and have a better chance than here of putting out reasonably well-formed policies and the related legislation. And its not just the bureaucrats who brief them, its also the technocrats in govt (who, in some areas of govt in the USA, tend to be much more tech savvy than here [1]). With 5 year terms for the ruling team, we should look at also having that changeover period.
[1] I know a USA techy who was involved in that process in the Obama startup, and one of his colleagues said of him that he actually had to put his suit on for those meetings in the centre of Washington...

David said...

I think there's a circularity in your argument, Jonathan. Universities are full of middle class students benefitting from state funding, so let's cut the state funding and make them pay, with the consequence that universities remain full of middle class students. I endorse Mike's comment above. Having talked to David Howarth, a Cambridge academic who knows something about recruiting students, and to my sister who nurses the illusion that she is working class because she has little money and who taught in a poor area of Essex, I think that a large part of the Oxbridge social inbalance can be attributed to poverty of aspiration, not by pupils but by teachers in state comprehensive schools. This anecdotal insight is supported by more systematic studies reported on Radio 4 not long ago (sorry, can't cite them). The system of tuition fees introduced by hypocritical Labour (including the arch-hypocrite Charles Clarke, former Head Boy of Highgate public school, former President of Cambridge Students Union and NUS) has now been taken a stage further by the coalition and will worsen that social imbalance.

Jonathan Calder said...

David: I agree with much of what you say, but it is all rather beside the point.

First, you need to show that increasing tuition fees will decrease the number of students from poorer families. What evidence I have seen suggests that charging fees in the first place had the opposite effect. For an old-fashioned left-winger who does not agree with you, read Peter Wilby.

Second, you need to show why the taxpayer should wholly fund university education for every middle-class child, no matter how unacademic they are. I can think of many better uses for this money - particularly boosting adult education.

However rude you are about Charles Clarke, it is you who wants to give his current-day equivalents thousands and thousands of pounds, not me.

Still, thanks for telling me who David Howarth is! ;-)

Anonymous said...

I realise that a couple of days have passed since your post but as we have learned, that's a long time in LibDem policy making.

So today we have Alexander on the Politics Show eventually under pressure admitting that some schools would lose out under the Pupil premium and others would gain. But he 'admitted' if that is the same as repeatedly denying to answer the question that the pupil premium wasn't new money in the education budget but just a stirring of the existing pot.

I think that the LibDems are up to their old tricks by portraying the PP money as going to individual students when, of course, it goes to the school. So what guarantees are there that the money won't be used to fill the general holes caused by the cuts instead of increasing chances for poorer students.

Andrew said...

hi all
i'm egyptian student learning civil engineering in alexandria university , Egypt (don't be deceived by the name)

i pay fees for the 2 semesters (about 4 months the semester) what equals 20 euros!!!!

u can say this is a grant for getting excellent marks in the high school

my brother couldn't get good marks so we have to pay about 3000 euros in another university for architecture engineering

in egypt we have a large quantity of bachelor holders but with a bad quality

for me i have to take courses out side the university to be able to work and just start my career

so don't concentrate only on the fees but what you're learning? , what you going to be aftar that

and sorry for my english if it wasn't good enough it isn't my mother tongue