Wednesday, 11 May 2011

A bad day at the office for Willetts

The governments tuition fees policy seems to be in a right mess. Considering that the Browne report was in line with the big party consensus (any idea that Labour wouldn't be doing this now if in government is laughable  They commissioned the report), the whole thing seems to be unravelling very quickly.

I have no problem with the concept that students should bear more of the cost of their education. It is awkward though because before all this we must ensure it doesn't put a single person who should go to university from a poorer background going. As a friend of mine (who is not as far as I know a Lib Dem) just said on Facebook, "I don't feel that I have the right to advocate for a drawing up of the rope ladder for anyone who comes after me.".

I have made this argument before but Universities have presided over a massive power grab to turn what were vocational professions into ones that require a degree. Governments have massively expanded the number of places to get more people from a poorer background into unis. But the top universities have not made great strides in getting more people fro deprived backgrounds into their campuses. Governments approach to this reminds me of a top boss who once told me that half of his staff were women so there was no equality problems at his office. He forgot to mention that 99% of the women were the secretaries and the tea ladies.

The new schemes mean half of people will never pay off their tuition fees and push repayments far further back. Obviously this, along with cuts in grants to universities, means that fees have to go up. The problem seems to be that government naiively believed the fees would come in at about £7,500 when many more unis than anticipated have set their rate at £9,000, the cap. To be fair most people will pay an extra £4,500 in many years time if they earn enough money to pay for it. 

All these stresses and strains could be met if the government borrowed money to finance the scheme. But my understanding is that the treasury is insisting that the funds for these fees are met up front by the Department of Education. This is causing a big problem and I believe was part of David WIlletts rather desperate attempts to raise money by people from the UK paying the "full whack".

I do not support the current tuition fees arrangements. If there was a majority Lib Dem government they wouldn't have happened. I do think we need to cut the number of university places to enable them to be more fully state paid places for people from poorer backgrounds. If that means some thicker posh kids go to get their university education abroad then that would be no bad thing for them. I know my views are not even in the Lib Dem mainstream but the current problem was entirely avoidable by the treasury realising you need to borrow to facilitate the new regime. With interest rates at record low levels for UK government borrowing (due to the essential decisions of the UK government) this wouldn't be such a bad thing. Borrowing to fund regular spending that is not sustainable is a bad idea but borrowing money when you know you will get it back is not such a bad idea.

It is probably not Willetts fault that the Treasury are not playing ball but his ideas seem unlikely to make things better.

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