I’m sitting down to write this article with some trepidation: a Liberal Democrat writing about tuition fees? This can’t go well.
But today, I’m angry. Because the Conservatives have conjured up a con trick. And it’s people on low to middle incomes who will suffer.
Now, I wasn’t an MP during the coalition. I was a teacher in Oxford. I saw first-hand how students reacted to tuition fees going up. It made me want to quit the party, and I almost did.
But for all its faults, and there were many, there was a part of the policy that worked. By the time the coalition ended, there were more students going to university than ever before. The gap between the percentage of students coming from affluent and from disadvantaged backgrounds was smaller than ever.
Universities had financial stability and those graduates who benefited most from their degree paid their fair share of the costs.
Yet after the coalition, the Conservatives made student finance more regressive time and time again. They scrapped maintenance grants, froze the repayment threshold for three years and threatened to charge higher fees to go to better universities.
Today’s announcement is the worst of all. The Augar Review has been undermined by a big, fat, Conservative con trick.
Look on most news websites: what are the headlines today? Tuition fees cut to £7,500.
So, how much less will most students now repay? Trick question. Graduates will now pay their loans back earlier and for 10 years longer. Most new graduates will pay about £15 month more than under the current system. The Conservative leadership candidates must disown this proposal.
What makes me angriest of all is that this trick has distracted us from what is actually quite good in this report, especially for people who don’t go to university.
Bringing maintenance grants back will ensure that students from the poorest homes don’t have the most to repay. And giving everyone, no matter their age, the right to a free Level 3 qualification (equivalent to A-Levels) will ensure that no-one is denied the basic skills they need to advance their career.
Augar’s proposal for student loans for higher further education learners is a good start but it isn’t radical enough to trigger the revolution in lifelong learning that the UK so desperately needs. As our economy changes rapidly, everyone will need to retrain and upskill throughout their lives.
As a Liberal Democrat, I believe that people, not politicians, know best about what courses will give them the most enjoyment and best advance their own careers.
That’s why we would introduce Personal Education and Skills Accounts. Central and local government, individuals and their employers would all pay in, and the learner can spend the money on any accredited course they like. They’d also receive free careers advice so they can talk through their course choice with an expert.
But what about universities?
There are three things the new Conservative leader must do urgently to fix the situation.
First, they must compensate universities in full if the tuition fees cut goes ahead, else universities will cut their widening participation budgets and drop subjects that are too expensive to teach.
Second, they must curb the sky-high interest rates put on loans after people graduate. The government makes a mint on middle-income graduates because the interest rates bear no relation to the cost to the government borrowing.
Third, given the crisis in NHS recruitment, nurses’ bursaries need to be brought back.
But we probably need to go further. As Martin Lewis has argued, for most graduates, the current system works a bit like a graduate tax. So why not turn it into one?
All the frightening language about ‘fees’, ‘loans’ and ‘debt’ disappears overnight. Students from wealthier families, who bypass the system by paying tuition fees upfront, instead pay their fair share. The system becomes more progressive and most graduates would pay a little less.
Now, there are problems with a graduate tax too, and I’d want to review the proposals to see what impact it would have on widening participation and on universities’ budgets.
But what the Conservatives have forced Philip Augar to do is to put a catchy headline above the truth. It is a con trick, and I won’t stand for it.
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