A plague on both your houses

As a way of distracting myself, I’ve been looking through Education at a Glance 2010: OECD Indicators and becoming increasingly convinced that UK politicians of all parties are missing the point about the funding of higher education.

The OECD’s stand-out conclusion?

Even after taking account of the cost to the public exchequer of financing degree courses, higher tax revenues and social contributions from people with university degrees make tertiary education a good long-term investment.

The £2.9bn cut per year to university teaching budgets is therefore far worse than it seems. If students are put off going to university because of the 30 year tax/debt/contribution (call it what you will) burden they’ll end up with, the UK will lose out in terms of future tax revenues.

If they’re not put off, then we’ll end up having to support them with additional public funding when they retire (the 9% graduate contribution above £21,000 is about what I’ve managed to save of my income through pension payments over the last 25 years or so).

So the short term ‘saving’ will pretty soon become a financial penalty on the UK economy, every bit as bad, if not worse than, the interest we pay on the UK deficit.

In fact the cut may have worse consequences than purely economic ones. The OECD also measures the social benefits of a tertiary education (See indicator A9). It shows that those who have experienced tertiary education in the UK are healthier, take a more active interest in politics and society (are you listening, David Cameron?) and display higher levels of interpersonal trust.

So my message to politicians of all parties is simple –  “a plague on both your houses“.

Labour – for introducing and trebling tuition fees when you were in power, despite your manifesto pledges not to do so and for commissioning the Browne review.

The coalition – for being suckered in by Browne and appearing to want to go one better than Labour by trebling student contributions yet again.

Dear Mr. Bean …

Dear Martin,

I can understand why the Open University and you specifically are welcoming the Browne review. It appears, quite rightly, to put part-time degree study on a level playing field with full-time study. For those of us who are OU students or thinking about study with the OU, this ought to be welcome news.

But what will the “level playing field” really mean to students? My concern is that it will inevitably involve students paying far higher fees in the long-term for an OU education. You’ve been remarkably silent about this in the statement put out by your press team and also in the media interviews I’ve heard you conduct today.

What I and many other OU students want to know from you as a matter of urgency is an indication of what your plans for fees are in the medium term. I appreciate this may be difficult to do before the October 20th comprehensive spending review announcements, but a direction of travel now and some more considered guidance after October 20th would be very welcome indeed.

To be absolutely direct,  is the OU intending to raise fees to £3,000+ for a typical 60 credit undergraduate module – the equivalent of half a year’s study at a brick university? If you are, then I guess that’s understandable given the way in which ELQ funding was slashed under the previous government and the unwillingness of the current coalition to see universities as a collective investment in our future prosperity as a nation. On the other hand, if you’re not intending to raise fees to this level, then I think you ought to be making a virtue of not only the flexibility that OU study provides to its students, but that in these stressed economic times it makes sense for more students to consider following the OU route, whatever their age.

You see, without this vital piece of information from you, I think it is perhaps just a little bit too early for the self-congratulatory tone of the statements you’ve made today welcoming the Browne report.

I look forward to your response.


Cable damage

Vince Cable is a politician that I’ve admired for many years. It seemed to me that he was in that great tradition of Liberal politicians who were not afraid to be different and to speak out. His track record surrounding the banking crisis was second to none. If you believe that Gordon Brown saved the world economy, then it was Vince that told him how to do it. I can’t help but believe that had Vince been chancellor in the run up to the crisis and during it, we’d be in a far better position as a country today.

But his track record so far in the coalition government in respect of higher education funding is about as bad as it could be. If he succeeds in his ambition of imposing a graduate tax (or contribution as he prefers to call it) in the form that he appears to be proposing, then he is likely to wreak far greater and lasting damage on the UK economy than anything we’ve seen from the actions of a mendacious few in the financial services industry.

The problem so far with the debate about a graduate tax is that it has been woefully short on detail. The underlying premise also appears to assume that the way that everyone achieves a degree is when they’re aged 18 or so through a place at a full-time, bricks and mortar university.

Those of us who struggle to juggle family, jobs and study later in life and pay our fees in advance for courses through institutions like the OU ought to be very concerned indeed about this blinkered and increasingly inaccurate world view, as it appears that we’ve been forgotten. In the current febrile climate of spending and job cuts, being forgotten about is definitely not a good thing. Being forgotten and having no voice means that you’re likely to get the axe swung in your direction, rather than quietly avoiding it.

And in all honesty, it’s not just the growing band of ever more youthful part-timers who ought to feel concerned about the prospect of a graduate tax. Everyone who strives to achieve academically ought to be.

I supported the Liberal Democrat manifesto committment of working towards a way of removing, over time, tuition fees and replacing them with funding through general taxation. This was clearly going to take time, but if accompanied by the removal of artificial targets, chief of which was the aim of putting half of all school leavers through degree courses of sometimes questionable value, then it ought to have been achievable. And progressive in terms of who paid for the benefits an educated workforce brings to the country.

What isn’t progressive, or fair, is the imposition of a potentially unlimited call on future earnings through the taxation system (and probably easily avoidable if you choose to emigrate), simply because someone has the ability and dedication to learn. Compared to such a scheme, the current regieme of tution fees (either payable in advance or through a loan, which is written off after 25 years should someone be unable to pay it – so it’s not even really a debt) is almost enlightened.

Arguing for a gradute tax is about as sane as making an argument that GB medal winners at the 2012 olympics should pay an additional tax, forever, to offset the cost of the infrastructure being built for the games, because they will benefit most from their medals and enhanced earning power in the future. I can’t wait to see Vince trying to suggest that one – he’d be laughed out of office, and rightly so.

The whole of the UK benefits economically from having a better educated workforce. Would it really be fair in future for someone earning a modest salary as a headteacher in a tough school to have to pay a higher marginal tax rate, forever, compared to amazingly wealthy non-graduates including Lord Sugar and Sir Richard Branson? Who of course, benefit substantially from the brainpower of the graduates they employ at all levels within their businesses.

The devil is in the detail of this proposal and I’m looking with trepidation to what Lord Browne’s report on higher education will bring forwards this autumn. If I can be convinced that the scheme that is eventually enacted will genuinely benefit individual graduates and the UK economy as a whole, then I’ll be prepared to eat a large slice of humble pie and reinstate my membership direct debit to the party I’ve been a member of for nearly 25 years. If not, then I’m not sure what I’m going to do. I’m a Liberal – but the coalition has in this particular matter, which is a “red line” for me, robbed me for now of the party I love.