Cable damage revisited

Much of the media fuss about Vince Cable’s speech today has been about his view on bankers and the need to regulate capitalism. All good knock-about stuff. However, what seems to be getting less attention at the moment are his views on higher and further education. I’ve reproduced parts of his speech below. He said:

There has to be a revolution in post 16 education and training. We are making a start. Despite cuts, my department is funding 50,000 extra high level apprenticeships this year – vital for a manufacturing revival. My Conservative colleague David Willetts and I want to sweep away the artificial barriers between universities and FE; between academic and vocational; between full time, part time and continuing life long learning; between the academic and vocational. I was the first person in my family to stay on at school beyond 15. I want everyone to have the chance to continue their education.

There are some unhelpful, cultural, prejudices and vested interests to overcome. The belief that only A-starred A levels count; not apprenticeships. Or a gold standard as defined by the Russell Group not good teaching institutions like Teesside University or Liverpool John Moores. Or the assumption that top Oxbridge maths brains should go to Goldman Sachs or hedge funds not to Rolls Royce or into teaching. Wrong. Completely wrong.

So far, so good. There’s nothing here to object to – quite the opposite – it makes perfect sense to me. But then, distressingly, he returns to his theme of a graduate tax:

I realise that there are people in the hall who believe that education at all levels must be free and the taxpayer should pay up, regardless of the bill. In reality the only way to maintain high quality higher education with less government money is for the graduate beneficiaries to make a bigger contribution from the extra earnings they enjoy later in life

I am doing everything I can to ensure that graduate contributions are linked to earnings. Why should low paid graduates – nurses, youth workers or science researchers – pay the same as corporate lawyers and investment bankers? We have to balance higher contributions with basic fairness.

Well, sorry Vince, but to me a progressive and fair taxation system is one that is linked to wealth (and wealth alone, whether that’s based on income, property or consumption) and should not include arbitrary additional taxation based simply on educational qualifications.

You fought on a manifesto that committed the party to look at how FE/HE could be funded from general taxation over a period of years, as and when finances permitted. In the meantime, the fairest way of funding FE/HE is through the current system of tution fee loans and general taxation. A graduate tax was not part of the deal. After all, under your scheme Vince, some well paid business people without a degree (quite often, some of the spivs and gamblers you appear to so despise) would pay proportionately less in tax than, say, a headteacher on the same salary.

That can’t be right – or fair.

It annoys me immensely that it’s the Lib Dems in government who look as if they are going to be responsible for introducing an even more regressive tax than anything the Labour Party managed in the Blair/Brown years.

I’m hanging on to see what the coalition government’s final proposals are in this area, just in case sense prevails. But sadly, I think my 25 year membership of the Lib Dems (and the SDP before that) is slowly but surely drawing to a close.

Update 23/09/2010: My earlier post on this subject (Cable damage) is here.

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