Saturday 4 December 2010

Tuition Fee vote in the Commons

No more fees - we can't even afford cheese
As well as the snow madness going on, the other big distraction is the future funding of higher education. Ever since the Browne Review, the Government's Comprehensive Spending Review and then the Government's response to the Browne Review, from my own perspective,  university management has been dominated by managing their own and students' responses to events, as well as having to keep 'the business' going on - it's been a really difficult and stressful time for all involved.

Now we have the Commons vote on tuition fees next Thursday 9 December. On top of the continuing occupations in some universities (eg. at UCL), students are planning various 'anti-cuts' actions, throughout the weekend (e.g. the The Long Weekend at Goldsmiths), with protests next Wednesday and lobbying on the big day itself.

The LibDems seem in disarray - Vince Cable wasn't going to vote for his own Department's policy to increase fees but now he is. Charles Kennedy and Menzies Campbell are voting against. Simon Hughes? I've lost touch with the latest. This from the party whose bald election pledge it was not to raise tuition fees. I've also just seen in a Telegraph piece tonight: "In a sign that the row could destabilise the coalition, senior Conservatives have expressed fury behind the scenes that Mr Clegg is endangering the key policy by considering abstention." Destabilise the Coalition? I wonder if that will turn out to be exaggeration or foresight?

The Labour Party have offered little credible alternative. More recently, they've come out in favour of a graduate tax, but seem to have provided little leadership on this issue. Ed Miliband has just come out today and called the proposals "an act of vandalism". While Labour higher education spokesman Gareth Thomas said: "John Cleese could not have scripted this farce better than Vince Cable.

In the meantime, Vice-Chancellors (VCs) and university management have been left to fend for themselves faced with the startling, and I have to say, unexpected, news that almost all public funding for teaching was to be cut (except for STEM  and some language-teaching courses). Outside of the university sector, a point often lost is that with this 80% of state funding for university teaching being cut, increased student contributions (i.e. via tuition fees) will not result in an increase is funding for universities. The majority of universities (esp. those with no large endowments American-style) are not rubbing their hands with glee. They are still having to introduce budgets which decrease expenditure and seek to increase income. Their own costs are rising, student expectations are rising and the looming pensions crisis is going to hit hard.

What are they to do? Faced with the withdrawal of their largest funder (in most cases, and certainly the non-science based unis) VCs are left to fall back on tuition fees to keep their universities going. The students threaten universities with disruption and occupation; meanwhile the government holds the cards in terms of funding. VCs are being pressurised by David Willets to come out in favour of a higher level of tuition fee but they are mindful that would not play well in their own village.

A risk is that if VCs come out against the government, and the tuition fee is not increased at the same time as the implementation of drastic cuts in state funding then they are faced with a double-whammy - a colossal one which can only result in cuts in student numbers. The most some VCs might ask for is a delay in the haste to introduce the changes. Lots of quick-step footwork is being done.

By instinct, I agree with a recently-expressed line of Tony Benn's: you should tax income not education. I'm not sufficiently hot on economics to outline how this can be done. But it does seem to me that the Government's universities budget (located in Willets' BIS Department) is having to bear a far greater, disproportionate hit than other departments. It was always a risk that once the 'genie was out of the bottle' when Tony Blair's government first introduced tuition fees, the trend would be to revise fees upwards in future.

That a citizen has higher education is of benefit to the whole of society and the economy not just the individual, and so I think it should be a paid through general taxation, with the tuition fee maintained at the current rate of just over £3,000 per year.

It will be interesting to see how the politics of this one develops this week. Not just for the university sector but for the coalition government itself.

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