This week your political pizza will be served with a rather unpleasant and recurrent topping: university fees.
Lord Browne’s review has suggested that there should be ‘no upper limit’ on what universities can charge for courses; which could potentially see fees rise to £12,000 a year. Of course, Nick Clegg obviously forgot to show David Cameron the wondrous piece of mathematical genius that the boffins at LibDem HQ came up with to allow for free degrees for anyone and everyone. Or maybe he simply changed his mind (like the fact he woke up before the election, decided that deep, decisive cuts had to be made as soon as possible, and just forgot to tell a few people, i.e. the electorate). Heck, even Vinny Cable has renounced his belief in free University education. Now, it’s pretty obvious that to cut the deficit, that higher education grants are a valid target – as every area of government has to ‘dig deep’ and cut corners in a new-found sense of economic solidarity – but to simply dump the extra cost onto the shoulders of students whilst universities are already struggling to balance the books is unfair and puzzling.
Britain has a proud academic tradition, from the first shoots in Oxford in 1096 to GlyndÅµr University in 2008, and it should be a priority to ensure that anyone who wishes to go to university has not only the opportunity, but also the means to attend. This means we cannot allow future students to leave with over £30,000 of debt as soon as they leave university – who other than the wealthiest could seriously contemplate spending 3 years studying simply to have to pay off the value of a BMW as soon as they start working? All the good work done in the past century to promote social mobility could be undone in one moment of poor decision making. Not only would it be a failure for a progressive society such as the UK, it would be an economic disaster. As a service-based economy, we need a steady influx of graduates to ensure Britain remains competitive in the global market, not only against more established rivals, but emerging intellectual powerhouses such as China. How do we achieve this by yet raising the ladder to not only the poorest, but the middle classes as well.
How do we fix this problem? Well, a graduate tax is the fairest and most progressive option on the table, but would there be room for a system where tuition fees are linked to your family income, meaning those earning the most pay the highest level of tuition fees – but even then, these should be capped at the very maximum of £6000. Maybe the move to two year degrees should be discussed, or living at home and studying at your closest university; but how would you feel if you were denied the independence of moving away for three years, simply because of what your parents earn? Simply allowing universities to charge whatever they feel will create at best a two-tier education system; and at worst would deny higher education to thousands; not just the poorest, but average-income families will be hit just as hard, especially with the simultaneous withdrawal of child benefits for millions. Let’s hope that the Coalition remembers that whilst the deficit is only for Christmas, the effect on Britain is for life.