Julia recently responded to a Stevenage Liberal Democrat member, who is currently studying at university. The contents of this email is reproduced below.
According to a study by Student Finance for England, Scotland and Wales, the new proposal to raise tuition fees to £6,000 a year will see students start off their working life with an average of £30,000 of debt. Is that fair?
I would not say that it was fair but the coalition proposals mean no up-front charges for either full or part-time students; they provide for a delay in repayments until the graduate is earning £21,000. Anyone earning more will be repaying a larger amount. The lowest earning 25% will pay back less than they do now and the highest 35% will repay more.
At the same time the maintenance grant will be provided for some students completely free. Universities may not need to charge £6,000 and will have to justify their fees above £6,000 to the National Scholarship Scheme and demonstrate that they have scholarships in place to allow less well off students to study without cost.
With the Aimhigher scheme under threat, what clarification should we expect from Universities that wish to charge higher fees about what they will do for the poorer students?
Spending on Aim Higher has fallen by 43% since 2004. The £150 million being paid into the National Scholarship Scheme will continue the work begun by Aim Higher. I should expect that any university receiving this funding will continue to work closely with sixth-forms in schools: to maintain links through special summer schools and taster and skills building events which inform young people about the expectations of the university for entrance and to assist with guiding young people into making the best choice of subject for them. School heads would be free to spend the pupil premium on extra support for students from more deprived backgrounds to encourage and prepare them for university entrance from a much earlier age when it can make a real difference to more of our young people.
Poorer students will have access to higher learning and the wealthier students will be able to make the mark, but what about those who just miss out on the threshold? Is it fair that some students will be priced out of further education?
I would hope that no one will feel priced out of education. There will be a sliding scale reducing the maintenance grant for those from a household with an income above £25,000 and as the grant is reduced access to a loan kicks in until the household income reaches £42,000; the lower rate of interest on the grant for maintenance combined with the fact that if they do not reach the trigger salary of £21,000 they would not have to repay their loan for tuition fees, the government feels justified in calling these proposals progressive. The problem is that the headline about removing the tuition fees cap is the only one of the proposals which is being widely reported and discussed.
Fees are being raised for individuals who already borrow all of their money from the Government. Is this a viable and fair solution when it’s going to take so long for the country to see a difference for something that is going to take students years to pay back?
Unfortunately the budget of the DBIS had to be cut to help get the deficit under control: most of its expenditure goes into funding universities’ teaching. This funding has to be reduced. Either the number of students is drastically cut or alternative funding is raised. The Labour Party set up the Browne report which has advised the government to raise tuition fees: the government is not raising them as much as Browne recommended.
Has there been any consideration about what the increase in fees will mean to individuals aiming for career paths where a Masters or a PhD is a requirement?
I am sure there has: the government is keen to support science and the teaching budget for science (I believe) is not being cut. I should think that the government is anticipating that non-government funding will continue and possibly expand. There are numerous charities and other agencies which donate funding for post-graduate study already – it would be in keeping with the Big Society ethos if this were increased.
The majority of MP’s at Westminster hold a degree in something, be it Politics or something completely different. What did your degree mean to you?
I do have a degree and I was fortunate to attend London University at a time when fees were paid and means-tested maintenance grants were available. My family found it difficult to make up the difference between the grant I received and the amount of a full grant and I do therefore sympathise and appreciate some of the struggles students have today. I am of course very grateful that I did not have to repay the cost of the tuition fees: my degree enabled me to have a fulfiling job as a teacher. I have certainly not been one of the high earning graduates.
I am immensely impressed by graduates (including my daughter) who have managed to repay their student loans which was a policy brought in by the Labour Party which as Liberal Democrat I did not like for all the reasons of fairness which you are raising here.
Where would you be without it?
I should be less open to new ideas and I should be ignorant of a large body of English literature and much of the academic work associated with it; I should not have enjoyed a fairly long career in a profession which only accepts graduates; I might not have stood for Parliament as I am fairly certain I should be less confident; and I might not have found it easy to live 200 miles away from the area where I grew up. I feel privileged to be a graduate and I am keen to see as many young people as possible enjoying the same opportunity to study for a degree if it is the most appropriate option for them.
Is it fair, then, to expect students to pay triple the price for their tuition than you did, for something so integral to their future?
Like others I was shocked at Labour’s u-turn on their manifesto promise not to increase tuition fees before the 2005 general election. The Liberal Democrats do not like tuition fees for students and we had promised to phase them out. We did not win the election and the Liberal Democrats did not form the government. The government is a coalition of Liberal Democrats and Tories and was formed after an agreement was negotiated between them. In the process of negotiating the Liberal Democrats were – amongst other things – able to scrap identity cards; introduce the pupil premium; raise the tax allowance threshold and commit to bringing about an end to the detention of children at Yarls Wood.
However because of the complete mess in which the Labour government left the economy we have had to recognise the need for cuts. As part of the coalition agreement the two parties decided to wait for the Browne report before finally deciding on the funding of Higher Education. I have been personally assured by Danny Alexander that everything possible has been done to make the payment of tuition fees progressive.
It is difficult to compare the cost today with 1973 when I graduated. What I can say is that in the 70s we accepted that we could afford only cheap accommodation and a fairly frugal life-style whereas today students are encouraged to take up more luxurious accommodation; to have libraries open all the time and to choose their university because of the popularity of the local pubs and clubs. Night-life was limited in the 70s and technology was a public phone box , a record player and a rented tv. On the other hand fewer students had paid jobs to help them to make ends meet which many do now.
Because we as a society have been breaking down barriers to university education we have as a consequence made it more expensive to fund. Lord Browne has failed to come up with a better alternative and sadly I don’t currently have a better plan. What I should not wish to see is a revolt against this policy in the coalition agreement (ie to follow Browne’s proposals) leading to the Tories voting down the Liberal Democrat commitments.