In the current environment of student anger and widely publicised strikes, the dominant headlines concern tuition fees tripling and teaching funding being slashed. In themselves, they are true, but a far stretch from being a fair reflection of the changes suggested. In reality, with all factors taken into account, the new measures are actually a good deal for students – especially for those at the poorer end of the spectrum.
The foundations given for the protests are actually pretty thin when analysed in detail. Tuition fees, now referred to as ‘graduate contributions’, have the potential to rise to £9000 per year. But, crucially, this is conditional on increasing access to poorer students. Under the new proposed system, higher fees have been coupled with counterbalances. Grant schemes will see large growth; both the absolute number given out and also in the generosity of those grants. Maintenance loans will also cease to be means-tested.
Another key aspect of the changes is the huge increase in the repayment threshold. Currently it sits at an income level of £15,000 per annum, but under proposed alterations would rise significantly to £21,000. This change makes a colossal difference to the funding system. For a student earning £25,000 after graduation (a typical second year salary for TeachFirst in London), under the old scheme, they would pay back £75 per month. Under the new proposed scheme, this would fall massively to £30 per month. I fail to see the problem so far.
Many tout the claim that these higher tuition contributions for the individual will deter people from attending university, but this is a premature assertion. No-one really knows what the effect will be and any guess is as good as another; the grounds for pessimism just aren’t substantial.
More specifically, people are especially worried about deterrence in arts and humanities subjects due to the removal of government teaching funds to these fields. However, the impact of this is easily exaggerated: York has already proven its commitment to arts and humanities funding, as a contributing factor in being awarded The Times’ ‘University of the Year’ award. There is no reason that intra-re-allocation won’t occur at universities; surely it is quite realistic to expect that many institutions will want to maintain their diversity.
Also, the idea of students taking on massive debt is misleading. The debt is only realised when earnings are realised. If a graduate continuously earns £20,000 a year, then their debt levels are effectively zero. Additionally, it is so important to frame this issue in the context of the country’s current financial position. The scope of government is necessarily reduced by the huge fiscal strain we find ourselves under. Part of the blame inevitably lies with the fiscal imprudence of the previous New Labour government. Many have protested because they feel abandoned by the Liberal Democrats, and their backtracking on pre-election policies. The reality of the situation though, is that, pre-crises abolishment of tuition fees was an ambitious policy suggestion, but post-crisis it is nothing more than a distant ideology. Students need to come back down to earth.
If there is one person at the centre of this whole affair who risks deterring disadvantaged prospective students it is not Cameron, not Clegg, but Aaron Porter. The NUS and their imperceptive pessimism have created a wave of negativity without presenting a balanced view of the actual situation. Rather than being informative, their apocalyptic assessments risk creating a self-perpetuating decline in the number of higher education applicants.
This move is not a privatisation of higher-education, it is a shift within the current and highly successful framework. Rather than being the result of a prudent evaluation of the policies at hand, the student protests of late seem to be based on bitterness over the election fallout. The two should not be bundled together. The new system stands to benefit many and probably isn’t worth donning a megaphone over.