I have been challenged, along with everyone else who voted against a Council motion to send a letter to Vince Cable objecting to the Coalition government’s policies on student fees and educational maintenance allowance to explain my choice. What follows is an open letter to Tom Jennings a Warrington member of the national Youth Parliament explaining my position.
I am afraid it is a little lengthy – but these are difficult and important issues:
Thank you for your email concerning the Council vote on a letter about EMA and tuition fees. You will probably know that I both spoke, and voted against, the motion.
University fees are a matter very close to my heart as I taught at Manchester University for 30 years, am currently an Honorary Research Fellow at Manchester University and a Visiting Professor at Liverpool University. I have two daughters with student loans.
When I was selected to be a Liberal Democrat candidate for Warrington Borough Council, four and a half years ago, I was asked if there were any party policies I could not support. I declared then that I could not support the party policy of abolishing university fees because I felt the policy was undeliverable and unsustainable.
My experience, throughout my university career, was that funding for universities always loses out compared to other spending priorities for almost all political parties. I also found that there was generally little public support for funding students or universities.
As I believe that the opportunity to go to university for all those capable of benefiting is vital, that opportunity can only be offered if universities are funded. Universities also have the essential function of carrying out research and scholarship to generate new knowledge. This has to be funded too so that students can learn in an atmosphere of research; the essence of a university education.
The Labour Party soon found that to expand the opportunity of a university education, to allow up to 50% of young people to benefit, the only practical source of funding was fees. That is why Labour broke an election promise and introduced fees when they said they wouldn’t and then broke a second election promise to bring in top-up-fees which trebled the amount students were going to have to pay.
The Times newspaper, no great friend of either the Labour Party or the Liberal Democrats, expressed the view, in an editorial, that Labour had been right to do this. It is in our interests as a country, and in the interests of students to go to university, so it is fair that the cost should be shared between the tax-payer and the student who will benefit either through higher earnings or through self-development.
The Liberal Democrats are a democratic party which adopts policy on a democratic basis. Grass roots members voted for our no-fees and no fee increase policies against the advice of some of those at the top of the party who felt the policy was unsustainable. Once adopted we all stand by a policy, even if we disagree with it. It is then up to our campaigns department how to present a policy. I think it is very unfortunate that so many of our parliamentary candidates agreed to sign the student fees pledge and that this was on top of a party political broadcast that said ‘no more broken promises’.
We asked for votes on the basis of what we would like to do if we were to win the election and form the government. We did not win the election, in fact we got 23% of the vote, an excellent result but we ended up in a good third place. Both the Conservative Party and the Labour party were committed to taking note of the Browne review, commissioned by Labour, to look at the future funding of universities.
Browne recommended taking the cap off university fees and allowing universities to charge what they wanted to. This was not accepted. Labour talk about the trebling of university fees, but the £9000 fee is likely to be exceptional and all universities charging more than £6000 will have to make far greater provision of bursaries for those from poorer households.
Only 26% or so of the electorate voted for parties (LibDem, SNP, Green) that wanted to get rid of fees. The remaining 74%, or at least 65% (Conservative and Labour) voted for parties committed to fees and to taking account of the Browne review. Liberal Democrats, as good democrats, have to take account of the fact that more than twice as many voters voted for parties in favour of fees, and likely to raise them, as voted for abolition.
So as the smaller party in the Coalition we have done our best to make the fees policy as fair as possible. Much is made of the debt burden students will leave university with. However this is not ‘debt’ in any conventional sense. It is a notional figure, based on the value or cost of the course they attended to calculate their graduate contribution. That graduate contribution:
• Will not start until earnings exceed £21,000 per annum
• It will be levied as a percentage of residual income – like Labour’s graduate tax
• It will not last forever, as graduate tax would
• It ends when the fees loan is paid off, or after 30 years
• Payments stop if earnings fall below £21,000
• Monthly deductions will be less than at present – £74 per month less at £21k
• …. but they will go on for longer
• As mortgages are based on take home pay after deductions, mortgages will be easier to get than for current students paying off Labour’s loans.
• Much greater provision will be made to give financial incentives to students from the least well off households
So I see the Coalition’s policy as fairer, and easier to implement, than the only alternative on offer, Labour’s graduate tax. While the details of that tax are not clear, it is clear that high earning graduates will be taxed twice on their good fortune, once because they will pay higher rate tax as any taxpayer does and a second time because they are graduates. This means that a high performing student, who does well at university and is rewarded for that hard work by earning more, has to pay more for the same education as a poor student who performs poorly on the same course and does not get any income premium. It simply doesn’t strike me as fair to charge good students more for their education than poor ones. Nor do I accept the argument that ‘poor’ students are simply students who were poorly taught.
Incidentally there is also an issue of government spending in general where Labour have been less than frank. According to Treasury figures Labour planned to cut the budget of the department of Business Innovation and Skills (BIS) by 25%, this is exactly the same cut that has been imposed by the Coalition government. BIS funds universities and science. Had students not been asked to pay more Britain’s science base would have been slashed, we would have to leave major international science projects such as CERN and the physical sciences including Physics and Chemistry would have been totally undermined. This would have a serious effect on Britain’s economic competitiveness.
Lobbying by the Royal Society and popular figures such as Brian Cox persuaded government that slashing science spending was simply too damaging. For that reason the coalition is moving to switch some of the cost of student fees from government to students. Before the 25% cut, under Labour, students paid 40% of their tuition costs the state 60%. Under the Coalition’s plans student will be paying 60% and the state 40% while science will be protected. I believe that this is the right choice. If you would like to argue that BIS should not be cut by 25%, you will find it hard to find any political party that agrees with you and you would have to decide what other budget that money should come from.
My feelings about EMA are less strong than those about university fees. However it is my view that more should be spent on the most educationally disadvantaged to help them catch up, rather than providing, what is sometimes no more than extra pocket money, to the 90%, or more, of students receiving EMA who would have remained in education without it. EMA is particularly problematic because it is already a means tested benefit rather than a universal one. However, I can see no appetite among taxpayers to pay more tax and to get some of it back in universal, or widespread, benefits. In these circumstances I would prefer to see help concentrated on those who really need it, rather than spread thinly on those who might be bribed to vote for you. That is clearly a political choice and I disagree with Labour’s position. It is a tragedy that after 13 years of Labour government the most educationally disadvantaged, because of home circumstances, have been helped so little to climb the ladder of educational opportunity while so many, who can do without the limited help that EMA offers, have received funding.
Cllr Robert Barr
Warrington Borough Council