The Browne Review and university funding: what’s likely to happen next…

The publication of the Browne Review into university funding has been brought into even sharper focus for Lib Dems by Vince Cable’s email to party members over the weekend ruling out a ‘pure’ graduate tax to replace tuition fees.

This has sparked vigorous debate, both here on Lib Dem Voice, and beyond, with Lib Dem MPs coming under pressure to stick by their pre-election pledge to oppose any increase in tuition fees.

Some of this sound and fury has been overdone. None of us has yet seen the detail of the funding proposals being brought forward by Vince Cable, which it is clear will be a hybrid funding system: neither pure tuition fees, nor pure graduate tax, but a mixture of the two.

It is clear Vince believes the new funding system that’s been devised will be both fairer and more affordable than a pure graduate tax, and that it meets the spirit of the party’s long-standing opposition to tuition fees though clearly not the letter. Whether Lib Dem MPs and members accept this compromise we’ll see soon enough.

Saturday’s Times published an outline (£ paywall link) of what is likely to come forward, which I’m given to understand is an accurate reflection of the proposals Vince will publish next week, namely:

  • the Coalition will accept Browne’s recommendation that the cap on fees is lifted (though not necessarily to the full £7k envisaged by Browne);
  • any university wishing to charge more than £7k will have to put in place a comprehensive scheme of financial aid, and pay a proportion to the government to compensate for the additional student loan costs incurred;
  • fees will not be payable upfront (as is also the situation now — though when Labour initially introduced fees in 1998 they were payable by students (or more likely their parents) upfront);
  • interest rates on student loans will be made variable based on graduates earnings (this is not ‘pure’ graduate tax, but its impact on most students is pretty much the same as a graduate tax);
  • the threshold for loan repayments will be increased from the present £15,000 (so no-one who earns below the new level will be liable for any repayments at all);
  • the government will announce new funding for more publicly-funded bursaries and scholarships.

So what happens next?

Well tonight, Monday, Vince will brief Lib Dem MPs on the package. This will be the first test of whether the Coalition model is judged acceptable to those MPs who’ve already publicly said they will not vote for an increase in tuition fees.

Tomorrow, Tuesday, Browne delivers his report. Its findings, trailed for so long, are unlikely to surprise many. But the Coalition will look keenly to the initial poll findings to judge whether there are particular parts which are judged unacceptable.

Then next week, the same week as the Comprehensive Spending Review, Vince will announce the proposed new funding system. There is unlikely to be a further round of consultation.

What will be the reaction of Lib Dem MPs and members? In part this will depend on whether Vince is able to persuade even the most sceptical that the combined impact of the package of reforms he’s proposing are progressive, fair and affordable. However, there appears to be acceptance within the party leadership that a large number of Lib Dem MPs will elect to take up the opportunity written into the Coalition agreement to abstain; and that many others will go further, and actively vote against the measures. It is quite possible the Government will be defeated.

Lib Dem party policy, of course, remains unchanged by all this Coalition manoeuvring: the party continues to be opposed to tuition fees, and committed to scrapping them. Though how Nick and Vince will simultaneously defend the Coalition proposals at the next election (if they do navigate the Parliamentary arithmetic) while propounding existing Lib Dem policy is anyone’s guess (and an inevitable hazard of coalition politics, the more so if you’re the junior partner).

It’s well worth reading ConservativeHome’s take on the issue, which asks the mirror-image question to the one Lib Dems are pondering: Will there be a Conservative revolt over the Government’s hybrid student finance plans?

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  • This is the first serious test for the coalition. Lib Dems accepted the cuts and reductions in benefits because deep down they knew both were necessary to save the economy. HE funding is a genuine choice, which is why there will be so much battle over it.

  • Well all I can say is I wouldn’t like to be Vince arguing that a small adjustment in interest rates is a get out of jail free card considering the strength of the pledges made before the election.

    There are bound to be MPs who vote against the fees and it will be nigh on impossible to argue that they are the ones in the wrong for sticking to their promises. Some MPs will fall into line with the official coalitoin position and take it on the chin from their constituents. But it’s really going to be Nick who will be front and centre for the backlash on this as he was incredibly vocal about opposing tuition fees and the buck stops with him.

    The fault for how this happened lies squarely with the coalition negotiators and Nick who signed off on the document.
    How they did not see this absolute trainwreck coming passes understanding.

    This is going to haunt anyone campaigning on the doorsteps next year.

  • To say that this scheme is even close to a graduate tax is moreb of this saying that black is white that so many in the party now follishly endulge in.

    The student will still have a massive debt it is a loan not a tax . Nether steve tall or Vince Cable cen re-define the meaning of words

  • Yesterday you claimed that tuition fees were on the way out. I did ask you how you managed to come to that conclusion. You failed to answer. Today you claim that allowing fees to rise is still sticking to the spirit of the LibDem commitment. How is that possible.

    I also thought LibDems were against government by opinion polls.

    Coalition will look keenly to the initial poll findings to judge whether there are particular parts which are judged unacceptable.

  • @jayu – did you actually read the article before commenting? If you did, you’ll have noticed that Stephen pointed out that “Vince believes…” and also that it still has to be accepted by the Parliamentary Party tonight. Personally, I can’t see how it does stick to the spirit, but that’s my personal view.

    And for the views of the Party, you only have to look at the debate in the Scottish Conference on Saturday where an amendment to introduce tuition fees within the education paper was soundly defeated – this, I believe, reflects accurately the views of the membership.

  • Anthony Aloysius St 11th Oct '10 - 12:42pm

    Yesterday you claimed that tuition fees were on the way out. I did ask you how you managed to come to that conclusion. You failed to answer. Today you claim that allowing fees to rise is still sticking to the spirit of the LibDem commitment. How is that possible.

    Don’t shoot the piano player; he’s doing the best he can.

  • I think I am right in saying the coalition agreement would give Lib Dem MPs the right to speak against this compromise and abstain in a vote although some I am sure will vote against.

    Vince regardless of what he thinks has to deliver coalition proposals because he is a minister. I wonder if the abstain rule also applies to him. Would be interesting to see him abstain and speak against his own policy ( well one can dream).

    Interesting times

  • “The fault for how this happened lies squarely with the coalition negotiators and Nick who signed off on the document.
    How they did not see this absolute trainwreck coming passes understanding.”

    And the wider party for voting through the document of course!

  • Mike(The Labour one) 11th Oct '10 - 1:17pm

    @MBoy: In what curious world are benefit cuts essential and unavoidable but tuition fee rises and cuts to university’s not? Why is an assault on the most vulnerable section of the populace positive and this isn’t?

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m for a graduate tax. I just don’t understand why people on benefits are supposed to be fair game for whatever the Coalition wants to do to them and students aren’t.

  • @Mike(The Labour one)

    That point had crossed my mind also. You have LibDem members zealously supporting the removal of government support for some of the most vulnerable in society; that is what children are, no matter what their parents financial status; all in the name of tackling the deficit, and fairness. Yet they want to give government support to those very same children, at the start of their adult lives, at a time when they are much less vulnerable. Go figure.


    Nick, you lied straight to my face. That’s all there is to it.

    “How about Cambridge?”
    “Well, despite going to a crap comprehensive, I’m surely clever enough to get in, but I can’t afford it. What’s the best place to study Maths within my price range?”

    Congratulations, Liberal Democrats, this is the country you’re creating. To avoid passing debt on to our children, we are massively raising debt on our children.

  • @Mike, jayu: The current benefits system is bloated. Housing benefit is subsidising private rented sector landlords, child benefit is paid to millionaires, other benefits give some workless families more income than working families. If Labour wants to defend wasting those billions that’s fine, but others want to save the economy.

    The choice between fees and graduate tax is a choice between different methods that could both work.

  • I fail to see how some universities justify charging £10,000 per year for many courses: a couple of lectures a week in theatres with a hundred others (or more) for only 30 weeks/year and a professor who gives you 15 minutes of his time because he’s busy writing his next book. Other courses, science and technology for example, do require greater investment in dedicated equipment and resources. That raises questions in two areas:

    1) Should course charges reflect the cost of the specific course to some extent? Should recipient industries be funding university costs above £3300 per student?
    2) Are universities ‘a little casual’ when it comes to cost control?

  • Richard (different) 11th Oct '10 - 2:44pm

    Richard, isn’t that book the professor’s writing going to be on future generations’ reading lists?

  • @ Richard

    I agree.

    The current fees that is paid for a humantiies course by a student is really about adequate to pay for their lectures and seminars, as well as contribute a little to infrastructure (which IMHO should be mainly the government’s repsonsibility).

    Raising fees massively is unfair, a education costing £7,000 a year for your typical philosophy course is far more than is necessary to pay for the course tiself.

    Universities actually make a profit from students… about 230 million per year if I am right. They make astounding losses on research, over 1 billion.

    The real con here is that students are being used to pay the research bill of the universities. The fees have to rise now only because the government is making massive cuts to research funding.But really, the student should be paying for his/her education, and the government should be paying for reserach.

    This rise in fees is a scam designed to get students to pay for something which they don’t get any returns from, and which is not acountable to them in anyway. That is the killer point that should be used by the NUS I think, not universailty. I really don’t think the government would have an answer to this if it was brought up, students paying more than the education they receive is worth,

  • Well i think no matter how Vince Cable and Liberal Democrats try to package this. It’s going to come back and bite you in the arse.

    Any Increase in tuition fee’s will be viewed as a betrayal for everyone who voted LD in the General Election.

    Even abstaining from the vote would not be as seen as acceptable, As Nick Clegg and LD MP’s Promised to vote against any increase in fee’s.

    If Lib Dem MP’s Abstained and the policy ended up going through, I think they would be severely punished in the local elections next year.

    You can guarantee that media will publish the names of mp’s who chose to abstain from the vote and will show the Liberal Democrats up for being a weak coalition partner that’s being constantly bullied by the Tories.

  • Colin Green 11th Oct '10 - 3:35pm


    “Should course charges reflect the cost of the specific course to some extent? Should recipient industries be funding university costs above £3300 per student?”

    Both valid questions. Perhaps the fees for cheaper to teach subjects should be lower than those that require more facilities and equipment. Should industry contribute? I’ve been thinking about this today. There are 3 groups who benefit from university education. Perhaps they should all contribute. The graduate benefits both in terms of knowledge and experience plus an average salary increase of £100k pa. Employers benefit. Your local Law or Civil Engineering firm wouldn’t do too well if there were no graduates in Law or Civil Engineering. Also the country benefits. We need medics and teachers amongst others.

    These questions seem to point to a model where some courses are subsidised by industry bodies, or by the state, or both and the graduate has to pay the rest. Would this lead to a situation where “useful” degrees are cheaper than, dare I say it …

    The more I think about it, the more I think the fairest way is part state funded fees, part funded from industry, part repaid by the graduate as a proportion of their salary over a certain threshold until their fees are repaid or a certain time has elapsed.

  • Liberal Neil 11th Oct '10 - 3:41pm

    @jayu “You have LibDem members zealously supporting the removal of government support for some of the most vulnerable in society; that is what children are, no matter what their parents financial status”

    Of course children are vulnerable. And they are born to parents whose responsibilityit is to protect them. If you are suggesting that children living in households with an income in the top 10% are just as vulnerable as those whose parents wouldn’t be able to afford to clothe and feed them without benefits, then you are barking mad.

  • LibDem ministers will have to vote for the new proposals. When they entered the coalition they said they were putting party interest to one side in favour of the national interests. Just how difficult do you think it will be for their ‘friends’ in government, and their friends friend’s in the media to label them as acting purely in the party’s interest, at the expense of the national interest?

  • Anthony Aloysius St 11th Oct '10 - 3:47pm

    According to the Daily Telegraph the average fee for a day pupil at a private school is £10,296:

    It seems a bit unlikely that the “real” cost of a university course is much less than that.

  • @Liberal Neil

    Of course some children are more vulnerable than others. I have never stated otherwise. What I stated was that children are amongst the most vulnerable in society, and that many LibDem members have supported removing state support from some of them. Statements of fact.

  • Roy's Claret Army 11th Oct '10 - 4:20pm

    “This will be the first test of whether the Coalition model is judged acceptable to those MPs who’ve already publicly said they will not vote for an increase in tuition fees.”

    You mean all the Lib Dem MPs who said this publicly before the election and stood on a manifesto explicitly stating their opposition to fees?

    Or do you only mean those who believed what they stood on?

  • Roy's Claret Army 11th Oct '10 - 4:24pm

    Removing the fee cap will allow Universities to charge what like, irrespective of what it costs them.

  • “It seems a bit unlikely that the “real” cost of a university course is much less than that.”

    But at a private school the parents are paying for relatively well=paid teachers teaching them 9-5 5 days a week with class sizes of around 15 (usually less). They are also paying for better quality meals, extra-curricular activities, administration etc. As well as access to one-to one help and tutorials.

    Students at universities for humanities might pay for a 1 hour seminar (around 15 people, say) with a possibly less well paid lecturer, and a tutorial (around 6 people, say) with a postgrad student who is usually paid pittance.

    Then they pay for a few lectures. Where, again, the lecturers might be paid less than teachers at a school. The lectures usually have approx 70 people and the lecturer might be getting say £50 for an hour’s lecture.

    That going for for three university terms in a year should not come that close to £3,500 per stuent. But, admittedly, there are extra costs for infrastructure: databases, library etc). It still should only cost around £3,500 to educate a student and pay the wages of the teachers, and pay for the student’s use of the infrastructure. The fact of the matter is that the university uses student fees to pay for more than the students get out of the university… really the infrastructure and research should be paid more for by the govt IMO.

    In any case, I don’t think you can realistically hike up student prices and keep the low levevl of interaction, and often low quality of teaching, that we have at the moment. If students are asked to pay a private school fee for their education, you would assume they should be provided that kind of intensive level of education: 9-5 five days a week of high quality interaction. Clearly that is not necessary, but that is what they would be paying for.

  • Joe Anderson 11th Oct '10 - 4:41pm

    I’m pretty sure all Lib Dem MPs said:

    “I pledge to vote against any increase in fees in the next parliament and to pressure the government to introduce a fairer alternative”.

  • Richard 2.22pm post 11th Oct '10 - 4:54pm

    The student* already pays to get a degree: by waiving his/her earning potential for 3 years; by paying for accomodation etc; and by paying £3290 pa. A total of around £60,000 ** (see below). I believe employers who stipulate “degree required,” should be making a greater contribution in some way – either through a ‘golden hello’ – or a guaranteed salary enhancement – or a fixed payment to the university. Degrees were not required for many careers in the past – journalism and accountancy for example. Newspapers paid a minimum wage and trained budding journalists for a number of years. Accountancy firms did the same – you worked for 3-4 years as a trainee – and the employer would put you through your exams. Now employers just say they want applicants with a degree – without making any contribution themselves – apart from the cost of the job advert. Over the years employers have saved these training costs. Now, they just click their fingers and insist on degree-holding applicants – often dropping them for superficial reasons later on. Employment has become too casual for employers. Without investment on their part, they think nothing of firing and re-hiring – rather than training, coaching, developing, mentoring. This is one factor, but a particularly significant factor, in the transient nature of our current employment market.

    *Student or student’s parents.

    ** Total current costs
    Loss of earning = 3yrs @ say £13k pa = £39k
    Accom/food = 3yrs @ £5k pa = £15k (assuming they would otherwise live at home)
    Tuition = 3yrs @ £3.3k pa = £10k

  • Anthony Aloysius St 11th Oct '10 - 5:14pm

    “But at a private school the parents are paying for relatively well=paid teachers teaching them 9-5 5 days a week with class sizes of around 15 (usually less).”

    But considering those 15 pupils are on average paying £150,000 a year between them, staff costs are going to represent only quite a small fraction of the fees in any case.

    The point is that the infrastructure does cost money. You can argue that in universities that should be funded by the government, but that’s very different from saying that students should pay the “real” cost of their courses.

  • When will Liberal Democrats wake up and smell the coffee and see what the Tories are doing to them?

    Are ALL Liberal Democrats so unwilling to Acknowledge that maybe they have been used by Conservatives?

    There are Tories on one side of the party who regard the Lib Dem coalition with profound cynicism. They have only signed up to it because they thought it was vehicle for winning power and plan over time to destroy the Lib Dems and try to create the circumstances for a single party Tory government.

    This is the approach of the great majority of Conservative MPs, both inside and outside the government. It is the view of George Osborne and also taken by David Cameron’s director of communications Andy Coulson (hmmm where do i remember that name from)

    It is also being said that Tory backbenchers are planning to push for an ammendment on the AV.

    How far are Liberal Democrats going to let things go before taking some action.

    Sitting on the side lines and inaction is political suicide in my opinion.

  • Anthony Aloysius St 11th Oct '10 - 6:37pm

    “Tomorrow, Tuesday, Browne delivers his report. …
    Then next week, the same week as the Comprehensive Spending Review, Vince will announce the proposed new funding system.”

    Channel 4 is reporting that Cable will actually make a statement to the Commons tomorrow indicating how the government intends to adjust Browne’s recommendations:

    …significantly it looks like it could go further than Lord Browne in requiring some better-off graduates to pay back MORE than the price of their degree.
    That was a bridge Browne didn’t want to cross. The Tories aren’t mad keen on it either, but it’s been part of the modelling exercises going on in Whitehall and was seen by senior Lib Dems as a necessary concession to get their troops onside.
    Lib Dems are being urged by text not to talk to the press …

  • It’s a terrible idea if it isn’t backed up by a sliding scale of grants to benefit the worst off, but tuition fees have been a balls up from day one. And frankly, a graduate tax is an absurd idea too, because it makes no distinction between children who have come from poor backgrounds and those who have had every advantage in life. Neither fair nor progressive.

  • To be clear: students do, in countries where fees are set by the market, pay for research. But insofar as there is a choice as to which univ you attend, the fact that people choose to attend univs at which faculty engage in research demonstrates that they see a benefit from the research. That benefit is probably indirect – if you want to be taught by someone at the forefront of the discipline, then you want to be taught by someone doing research. If you are happy being taught by someone who is not at the forefront, then other univs should be able to offer you a much cheaper degree, for the reasons outlined by others in this discussion.

  • I have been pretty depressed by the stuff that is happening and even more upset that I can do nothing about it. Until the liberal democrats realise how awful hings are becoming for vast swathes of the population because basicly the coalition could decide to bring back hanging and there could be no opposition due to the sheer weight of votes. Is it just me who sees the dismantling of fairness everywhere and the frightening nature of the health service changes on which vast sums of money are to be spent? Please someone tell me this cannot go on for ever.

  • Patrick Smith 11th Oct '10 - 7:55pm

    The question-`What is that Universities do in 2010 for students and the British Econmy ? is more appropriate than the perennial question -`How much more racking should this `Coalition Government allow Universities to claim from this present generation of beleagured impoverished students?

    Since Labour brought in Tuition Fees in 2006, there has also been a more significant concern by Universities that their fundable graduate programmes have been impacted by poor retention rates.

    I am on the side of the least off students in the Tuition Fees debate, as the best student prospects are often being parented in penury circumstances and this bottom of the ladder social group should not be forced to go without higher aspirations by dint of inflated `Tuition Fees’.Was there more social merit in maintenance grants?

    Drop out student figures are very relevant to Universities in the current straightened times.

    A closer match in required for marketed University courses to the vocational needs of the British Economy and its shortage of Physics,Science and Engineers and Maths Teachers is vitally relevant and important to grasp the nettle.

    Lord Browne is likely to recommend greater help via more targeted bursaries for the least off poorer students.

    There is also sense in asking Oxbridge Vice Chancellors to reserve a set number or quota of places for assisted and bursaries dependant poorer students each year.

  • I’m not sure if I should be disappointed, horrified or disgusted by this latest Lib Dem policy betrayal.

    @Roy’s Claret Army is right – and Politics Home is reporting it tonight. Removing the cap is that – with no ceiling advised or recommended. Oxbridge + Russell Group institutions will be tens of thousands, down to red-bricks charging less than £5k. University attendance will regress to a position unimaginable pre-Coalition. Purely for the rich.

    This can’t go on. This isn’t government. It’s social destruction.

  • Anthony Aloysius St 12th Oct '10 - 12:08am

    The Telegraph seems to think it has the low-down on Browne’s report and the coalition’s plans:
    “Virtually all taxpayer funding will be removed from the majority of degrees and students will have to borrow tens of thousands of pounds to cover the doubled cost of courses. Universities will have to charge at least £7,000 a year to cover the loss of central government funding and some elite degrees are expected to cost up to £12,000 a year. “

    And so on and so forth. Obviously all Lib Dem MPs have irrevocably pledged that they will vote against _any_ rise in fees, let alone a four-fold increase, so thankfully there’s no chance that any of this will happen.

  • Anthony Aloysius St 12th Oct '10 - 8:40am
  • david thorpe 12th Oct '10 - 1:50pm

    @ chris

    the party doenst know its policy on this yet, you are putting words into the parties mouth. All that has happened is that a report commisioned by labour has come out. There has been no change in the party policy. The parlaimnetary party meet tonight. Then commnet on what you feel about the policy.

    Laboura bokished the 10p rate to pay for that, so lower earners paid more tax, while earners at thw higher end of the lower rate paid less.
    Thats regressive not progrressive.
    Now the lowest earnerrs wont pay any,
    thats progressive

  • Ive just finished my 5 yr masters degree in chemical engineering and I would say its cost me about 40-50k (and thats when tuition was 1,200 a yr). I dont mind too much about the cost, I just see it as an investment to allow me to have a higher earning potential.

    However, to become a chartered chemical engineer you need to have a masters so you have to go for 5 yrs, and its the same for all the other “needed” disciplines at the moment (engineers min. 4yrs, medicine 5/6yrs, etc). So charging over 7k a yr for these “needed” degrees is going to end up running very close to the 100k mark. Seems like your almost taking on a mortgage for something that is needed by the country. Lib Dems opposed any rise, thats why the majority of students voted them in. Breaking this promise will destroy a massive section of their fanbase.

  • Anthony Roocroft 8th Nov '10 - 12:15am

    Stop skirting around the issue your party lied to a large proportion of it’s core voters (students) and will be held responsible at the next election. We knew what Cameron would do – after all if you own a rabid dog you kind of know you’re going to get bit – but you Lib Dems promised so much! I have a feeling that this betrayal will haunt your party for a generation. Who can the electorate look to now to depose the Vichy leadership of your party since you all seem so implicated.

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