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The higher education battleground

Simon Campion-Brown on the subject of student loans

[Preface: One of the great joys of being a National Rust contributor is that, generally speaking, the restrictions and constraints to which one is subjected are few. Nobody is pretending that we are attempting to emulate the output of professionals in the media world. We are simply commentators giving our opinions upon modern life as we see it. You might dismiss this statement as a one-size-fits-all ‘get out’ clause designed to excuse our lazy journalism and lack of research, but I couldn’t possibly comment.]

Since the Coalition government came to power in 2010, the vexed issue of how higher education should be funded has been a regular political football.

There was a time, and a principle, whereby – in the cause of the greater good of the nation – the opportunity to take advantage of a free university education was regarded as not only a ‘good thing’, but an entitlement and a positive means of social mobility and advancement.

However, ever since the Coalition first decided to adopt ‘austerity’ as the best policy to deal with the catastrophic state of Britain’s finances, things have been drastically changed.

In order to reduce or contain the financial burden of higher education, it was decided that students should contribute by paying fees towards the cost of their courses.

The original plan was that universities could set their own fees, up to a maximum of £9,000 per annum, which would be paid by students either in cash and/or by ‘student loans’ eventually repayable once – if at all – they began to earn over an annual salary of £21,000. The justification behind this sea-change in approach was that – according to some set of officially-recognised statistics – those who benefit from a university education tend to go on to earn appreciably more in their lifetimes than contemporaries who do not go to university.

A couple of points arising:

Firstly, in bringing forward the scheme, the government had imagined and intended that the only courses for which the stated maximum of £9,000 per annum per annum would be charged were the ‘top’ courses at the ‘top’ universities. However, having left the decision as to charges to the universities themselves, it should surely have been anticipated by someone in government that what did happen might have done. To wit, charging £9,000 per annum per course became the norm, not just at the ‘top’ universities, but it seems – as far as I can tell – most of them.

That’s become a source of much criticism.

Secondly, a far greater source of criticism was – of course – the battle over the principle of whether university educations should be free to students.

There were two aspects, the first of which was that hitherto it had been an article of faith that a university education would be ‘free’ and, by changing this, the Coalition government was picking itself a fight.

The other was the political embarrassment suffered by the Lib-Dems (most particularly leader Nick Clegg), now in government, who during the 2010 General Election campaign had given a ‘watch my lips’ cast-iron pledge that students would never have to pay for their education.

Here I must nail my own colours to the mast.

In one sense – provided of course the statistics regarding the fact that people with degrees tend to earn significantly more in later life than those without degrees were accurate – when the Coalition intentions on student fees and loans were announced I could ‘see’ the logic.

After all, if a university course was effectively a guarantee of a life advantage, why shouldn’t students pay towards it – especially since there was a ‘fall back’ position that they wouldn’t have to pay anything back unless and until they began earning over £21,000 which (at the time) equated roughly to the average national salary?

Ever since then, whenever student representatives and/or the Labour Party and Lib-Dem activists have sounded off in public about the principle of student fees and loans, I’ve been dismissive of them to the extent that they fail to explain why university graduates shouldn’t have to pay towards the cost of their courses.

I’m reinforced in my views this morning by this article, featuring today on the website of the DAILY TELEGRAPH





About Simon Campion-Brown

A former lecturer in politics at Keele University, Simon now lives in Oxfordshire. Married with two children, in 2007 he decided to monitor the Westminster village via newspaper and television and has never looked back. More Posts