We took a severe beating in late 2010, from which we’re still not entirely recovered. From here, we can go in two directions: we can build a Higher Education policy that we can be proud of, or we can leave our policy in the pieces it’s currently in, and prepare for 2015’s brutal assault.
It’s hard to see a treasured policy fall apart under the pressure of electoral and financial reality. We all know there are positive aspects of the increase in graduate contributions that we can claim as ours: a Labour or Tory government would not have faced the public scrutiny that our reversal did. It was harsh and damaging, but the result is a better policy, as the FT notes. Decline in University applications seems to be less pronounced than previously believed, more broadly representative of the number of teens finishing Further Education, when accounting for the rush for places last year.
Crucial reforms to Higher Education needn’t cost the earth, or be beyond us in times of fiscal contraction. In fact, some reforms would increase standards of teaching, which can be poor as Universities place more emphasis on research. Not all University degrees are currently worth £9,000, whether paid for through taxes or individual contributions. We can, however, bring reform to make sure Universities are competing in the ways that they should.
The Conservative party’s moves towards limiting foreign students are designed for their social conservatism, and against the free-market principles for which we’re perpetually told that they stand. There’s room for Liberal Democrats to lead on sensible, open immigration policy for international students, who enrich and help to fund undergraduate education.
I hope that paying almost the full cost of their degrees in graduate contributions will make the students of 2012 take a close look at their educations and demand value. Tim Leunig’s proposals for reforms to allow universities to attract students from other institutions would shake some from an uncompetitive relaxation.
Most importantly, we need something new and radical. If we so desire, we could go into 2015 with the policy we pursued in 2010, as Lord Smith of Clifton has argued. We could advocate the total abandonment of contributions, contrary to what we’ve practised in government. But when I’m taking my turn staffing our Liberal Youth stall at Freshers’ Fayre in September, I’d like to be able to advertise some progressive, pragmatic and liberal reforms to a system which isn’t going to be overturned any time soon.
Mike Bird is a LibDem activist and student at Exeter University
* Mike Bird is the Chair of Liberal Reform