Sunday, 14 November 2010

What we need is less graduates not more tuition fees

I have been campaigning against university tuition fees since I was at university, when the idea was mooted by Labour. I was part of the last generation of students to not pay tuition fees and mourned their arrival.

I was more than happy to sign the NUS pledge, which opposed tuition fees rises, when I stood to be an MP at the General Election. The party nationally were right behind us. I know one MP had their doubts but was urged to sign by our national HQ.

We knew that the Browne report, commissioned by Labour before the election, would be likely to call for a raising in fees. I was reasonably content with the Lib Dem MPs agreement to abstain in the coalition agreement, understanding that Labour and the Tories have always been in favour of tuition fees so it would happen anyway.

There's no point in denying that the party now finds itself in a very difficult situation. Many Lib Dem MPs such as the excellent northern MPs such as Greg Mulholland Tim Farron, intend to vote against the proposals. A promise is a promise and it should only be under extreme circumstances that you break it.

However, I can't condemn Vince and others in the cabinet for trying to make the deal as progressive as possible, Under the coalition agreement, these people could have abstained.  But Vince will argue that, as minister of state in the department responsible for university funding, he had the chance to really influence the legislation for the better. On the positive side there is good stuff about part time students and raising the threshold for paying fees back. But it is not enough to persuade me that this will help encourage people from poorer backgrounds to go. We are at risk of creating a two tier system of cheap and cheerful universities for the poor and more expensive, well regarded ones for the rich.

So is there an alternative? Yes but probably not a graduate tax, which Labour is now apparently committed to despite half its shadow cabinet opposing it.

One of the noticeable features of the last 13 years is the expansion of Universities. Labour set the target of 50% of people going to universities. The percentage of people coming to university from poorer backgrounds rose but most of them are going to the universities less likely to get them the top jobs.

So many professions that were open to school leavers now require degrees. It was only a generation ago that people could become accountants, engineers, lawyers and nurses without attending university. But while it has become essential to get degrees our competitiveness as a nation has fallen.

If the state is to fund university degrees to any extent, it needs to recognise that there are too many university places for that. We need to devise a university system with top universities with the vast number of their students being from state education and open up the professions to apprenticeships and other ways of qualifying.


  1. This is the nasty little idea that you guys kept quiet about when going after the student vote, the reason you courted students was because there is so many of them. Yet, you actually believe that many of the students who voted for you shouldn't be at university. Students from Sheffield Hallam to Plymouth are there only because of expanded higher education.

    Reducing access to HE is totally the wrong think to be doing. China, India, etc are producing millions of graduates every year to invent the next generation of high tech industry. We should be investing in HE and inspiring kids to study the sciences, engineering, etc.

  2. Anonymous, India and China will always produce millions more graduates than us! In the current climate we face a choice. I think we should focus our money on getting the people from the poorest backgrounds into the best universities.

    Much of the expansion in places has not been in subjects for high tech industry. From 1996-2004 there were only 400 additional engineering places, less than 1%. Biggest riser? That would be degrees in Mass Communication at 159%

    The challenge is to get the world class universities in the UK to accept more people from deprived backgrounds into their intake. This has not risen enough under Labour. Quality not quantity. We do not want to push people into degrees when a vocational training course would make more sense.

  3. "We should be investing in HE and inspiring kids to study the sciences, engineering, etc."

    Fine regarding sciences, engineering and other fields of study which the nation needs. I'm happy for my taxes to subsidise the education of students in such fields - provided they go on to work in those fields.

    I'm far from happy that my taxes are also funding the education of parasites who have got a degree in any old subject and then gone off to be investment bankers earning for THEMSELVES a fortune running - effectively - gambling casinos - to be bailed out by the taxpayer when they fail. Or accountants earning a fortune looking for tax loopholes for the rich. Frankly that stinks.

    Neil is right about not pushing people into degrees if vocational training would be more appropriate. I had a look at some statistics on university dropout rates - and found some worryingly high ones at some universities - predominantly among those which have metamorphosed out of a polytechnic or whatever. Now while some students may have legitimate reasons for dropping out - if some students are taking up studies for which they are not suited - that's a waste of taxpayers' money and taxpayers have every right to feel aggrieved.

    I never did see the logic behind labour's target of 50% having a university education. Maybe we do have too many university places.