Coming to grips (or not) with tuition fees

From the frequency with which politicians present promises or assurances over tuition fees before elections, we must assume that they believe that fees are an issue that can help improve a party’s electoral fortunes. Nick Clegg in England, Ruairi Quinn in Ireland, Alex Salmond in Scotland have all made emphatic statements or vows that they would not allow fees to be introduced or increased. This all but destroyed Nick Clegg, and caused Ruairi Quinn some serious problems in government. Only Alex Salmond was able to use it to advantage, though it is hard to say whether it has made any difference in actual votes for the SNP.

And now Ed Miliband has got in on the act. Under his leadership the UK Labour Party has promised to reduce the maximum tuition fee English universities can charge from the current £9,000 to £6,000, to be funded by curtailing pension tax relief for those on higher pay. As was quickly pointed out, this won’t help anyone very much other than graduates on higher incomes, and it seems even senior Labour politicians were sceptical about the benefits of the promise. Indeed it is striking that, given the high profile the Labour Party originally gave to the announcement, by yesterday it was not visible anywhere on the ‘issues’ page of the Party’s website.

It continues to be my view that the British government’s tuition fee policy is wrong-headed: as everyone including the government itself assumes, a significant part (perhaps the majority) of the debt run up by students under the loan scheme will never be repaid, leaving a major funding problem a little further down the road. None of that would be made any better by the Miliband promise, the only real impact of which may be to make insecure a significant part of university funding – including funding in Scotland, as it happens.

It is almost certainly good advice to politicians to leave this matter alone during election time. University funding is something that will be better handled by thoughtful analysis and discussion. The key issues are the adequacy of funding to secure international competitiveness, inclusive access to higher education, and the autonomy of institutions. These are more sensibly addressed in an atmosphere that is not distorted by the noise of the electoral marketplace.

I strongly doubt that Ed Miliband’s initiative will help him get into 10 Downing Street.

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2 Comments on “Coming to grips (or not) with tuition fees”

  1. Eddie Says:

    No prize to guess why you missed the following from Daily Telegraph and Scotsman (Guardian conveniently forgot to report this! ) which is relevant to the discussion of tuition fee.

    Daily Telegraph 22 Feb 2015): ‘Scots ‘losing out on university places to EU students’ (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/universityeducation/11428014/Scots-losing-out-on-university-places-to-EU-students.html).
    Scotsman 9 3 MARCH 2015): ‘Scots students ‘are losing out to European counterparts’ (http://www.scotsman.com/news/education/scots-students-are-losing-out-to-european-counterparts-1-3698428).

    Now about Miliband’s proposal: I know why the Scottish universities are freaking out as it cuts the money coming to them, which has helped to fill the gap which exists but SNP denies. No surprise there. We know that English students’ fee keeps running many departments in Scottish universities. The Scottish free tuition does not help to the nation much as many of Scottish graduates in STEM subjects are emigrating. The company I work has seen 300-400 fold increase in the application of Scottish graduates recently in our branches in SE England and in Europe. Talking with them, it was clear that they felt that maintenance expense is far more important.

    The tuition fee in England has improved the teaching quality in English universities significantly as universities here are aware that students pay a hefty fee to attend their courses. The Russell group universities as a result are thriving in their course delivery. Miliband and Labour do not like this.

    SNP is offering to support Miliband government and I am sure there will be a very long list of demands coming from Salmond in return- for example increasing the Barnett pot size significantly. Salmond thinks that he can use 50 or so SNP MPs expected to push these demands. Interesting that he learned from Blair’s imposition of tuition fee in England using Scottish Labour MPs majority. Scotland continuously needs England it appears.

  2. James Fryar Says:

    I’ve never quite understood the odd relationship between secondary and third level fees. On the one hand we have large numbers of parents spending a fortune to send their kids to private fee-paying secondary schools, paying for grinds and the like, buying exam preparation books, etc. On the other, we expect third-level education to be cheap.

    Surely the solution to the issue is to ensure that the secondary system is working correctly so that one’s choice of school is not a barrier to third-level access. If people subsequently choose to avoid that system and pay for private schools, fine, but they shouldn’t then expect to have third-level education at a knock-down price.

    What some are attempting to do in both Ireland and the UK is reduce the costs of third-level to try and offset the costs of secondary. Which seems back-to-front …


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