Thursday, 9 December 2010

The wicked day

So now we come to it. The big day on tuition fees.

Actually, the Coalition will almost certainly get its way: perhaps by as much as 30-40 votes. Such is life

Still, it's one of the three worst days for public policy of the past twenty five years (the other two being Britain's ejection from the ERM in September 1992, and Britain's decision to go to war in Iraq in March 2003).

Why? Well, because it's such a bad policy - even adopting the Browne Report in its entirety, at least saving the taxpayer money and allowing universities some leeway, would have been better than this. Everyone knows that raising the fees cap, and the White Paper to come in the New Year, are laughable policies that will land us right back in this debate early in the next Parliament. But Ministers can't, or won't, say so.

But also because this is just another step down in the public's respect for politicians who break their solemn promises, written in their own handwriting, in their own names. Clever of the Conservatives to make the Liberal Democrats do this, of course, but not very clever for the Liberal Democrats' negotiating team not to make this one of their red lines in negotiations.

While we wait for the inevitable, here's a few myths and a few facts.

1. Part-time students will get a better deal. Some will - the thirty per cent or so who study long enough in the year to be exempt from paying in cash. Everyone else will have to pay up front, per module probably. Here's what the Guardian had to say about this today:

Part-time students will not have to pay upfront fees, but only if they are studying for a certain proportion of their time. Originally they had to be studying 33% of their time to qualify for full loan support. Yesterday, in a concession, Vince Cable announced that that would be cut to 25%. But any part-time student who is doing less than that – for example, working four days a week but studying one day a week (20%) – will not qualify for help.

Here's a headline - 'government massively raises up-front fees for the most vulnerable students, who probably gain most from HE'. Think we'll see civil servants dishing that one out in press releases? No, neither do I.

2. Only graduates pay back. Well, yes - but what about students who drop out? Presumably they will have to pay a fraction of their very high fees. Or there might be some remission system - further jacking up the enormous cost to the taxpayer. Either way, not a peep on this one from Ministers.

3. There Is No Alternative. A favourite of Mrs Thatcher, this one, and in terms of supply side reforms (e.g. privatisation of service industries such as British Airways) probably right. But not this time. Fees would have risen to only just over GBP4,000 had Ministers imposed the same cut on HE teaching as across the rest of the public services. That'd have been a compromise that Lib Dems really could have sold.

4. The deficit means we have to cut. No, not really - this will only save GBP700m or so a year, and will be 'back-loaded' towards the end of the Parliament, when the deficit is supposed to be paid off. So it won't really contribute to reducing the public sector deficit at all. That's even leaving aside the issue of whether we have to cut this much at all, which we don't. But I'll leave that for another day.

5. More numbers means we can't afford public universities. Actually, if the Government had taken its courage in its hands and lifted the cap off numbers altogether (as Browne recommended), the numbers participating among young people would have shot up - to perhaps sixty per cent of their age-group. That would have cost more, true - perhaps another GBP1bn under the old system - but it certainly gives the lie to the big myth (see previous posts) that governments have 'unnaturally' been forcing the numbers up. By the way, no developed English-speaking country has HE numbers as low as Britain's.

6. They do it this way abroad. No, they don't - public university fees will now be much higher than even in the US. Only American Ivy League Colleges will now charge more than British universities, and even there, 'needs-blind' admissions means that a good chunk of the students don't pay anything, or very little. Here, only a tiny number will get their fees remitted, and there'll be no Public College system to act as a safety valve for those who want to pay less. England - remember, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will be different - will have the most privatised university fee structure in the developed world, as well as the most expensive for those on low(ish) to middling incomes.

Think about this when you see government backbenchers cheering their victory today.

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