Thursday, 14 October 2010

Liberal Democrats and the Browne Report

We knew that things would not be easy being in coalition with the Conservatives but I really do not recall supporting American-style funding for universities.  In fact, as I remember things the Liberal Democrats plan is as follows:

Year Action
1      Scrap fees for final year full-time students
2      Begin regulating part-time fees
3      Part time fees become regulated and fee loans become available to part time students
4      Expand free tuition to all full-time students apart from first year undergraduates
5      Expand free tuition to all part-time students apart from first year undergraduates
6      Scrap tuition fees for all first degree students

Now I know what you are going to say.  We don’t have a Liberal Democrat government, the financial crisis is a lot worse than we realised etc; all good and valid points.  But where does it say that we have to support a policy that is diametrically opposite in philosophy and aim to our own?  Dear Vince Cable has already softened the effect of the Browne Report on university funding and doubtless behind the scenes more work will continue to make university access as broad and as affordable as possible.  On this point I expect such fudging to be ineffective.  While speaking on PM (Radio 4, 12th of October), Higher Education Funding Council for England representative Mark Calder noted that since the introduction of tuition fees in England, university attendance for those coming from the poorest twenty percent of society has increased by thirty percent.  So far so good but when asked whether this trend was reflected in the best universities in the country the answer is an emphatic “no”.   There has been absolutely no change in the social profile of those going to the top one-third universities.  The increase in the poor getting a degree has been restricted to those attending average and below average institutions. 

My interpretation of this is that since market forces have been introduced into tertiary education more customers have been drawn in but standards have failed to improve.  They may have even declined in order to attract new students who are being drawn in to generate cash for the institutions and for few other reasons.  If we continue down this path we will indeed recreate the American system where a core of excellent and well-financed colleges are surround by a hinterland of the mediocre or frankly rubbish offering near worthless degrees.  I thought we Liberal Democrats were good Europeans.

Does this mean that the state has to fund university study?  No, it does not.  When I lived in Norway during the late 1990s for example, in was usual for students to leave college with debts in the order of £30,000.  But part of the Browne report expressly does away with subsidies on interest payments on student loans.  Meanwhile in Norway it wasn’t just interest payments on student loans that was subsidised but all interest payments on personal debt.  In fact if one was debt-free, a person was expected to pay a higher income tax rate because they obviously had more disposable income.   The central point being is that debt, including student debt, is fully integrated into the social structure.   In the current economic climate, I cannot see England making such provision.   The belt is being tightened across all areas. 

There is only one logical conclusion; we must accept that for the next decade ahead at least, fewer people can attend university.  Other provisions, such as a return to apprenticeships, have to be given consideration.  This is very painful as since the 1990s the one way that a young person really can get ahead in life is by getting that degree.  If we were to cut back the number of places in order to maintain excellence, this does not necessarily mean we are depriving the current generation forever.  I myself was a mature student.

What of we Liberal Democrats?   Dear M.P.s, you signed a pledge, all of you.  In public.  There are photographs.  Doesn’t that mean anything to you?  I assure you it does to the British people.  If you go ahead and support the Browne Report we will not be forgiven.  Nothing that we will say subsequently will be believed.  Support this report and wave goodbye not just to your own but to our entire party’s credibility.

It’s not all bad; there is a solution.  We are part of a coalition government so one cannot expect ministers and PPCs to go into open rebellion.  So my advice would be to abstain.  This is allowed for under the coalition agreement.  Back-benchers, you are free to oppose this or at the very least also choose to abstain.

Last night I discussed this issue with Mrs Veart.  Having lived for a time in the USA, she was frankly appalled with the Browne Report.  This isn’t the way forward for Britain but nor is the way that she suggested for me.  This is very painful but she suggested... I can barely take myself to write this... she suggested that I join Labour.  Harsh words ensued.  I’ll say no more but I still feel sullied.
The Liberal Democrat party is my party.  I’m here to stay.  Being in this party is like being in a marriage; I love you but don’t expect me to like you all the time.   Frankly at the moment I’m pretty pissed off with you.

Nick Clegg MP with Julian Huppert MP signing the pledge not to raise tuition fees.

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