Don’t waste money scrapping tuition fees: level the playing field instead

I think at some point, every one of us has taken a hit over tuition fees; whether in a debating society, a council chamber or even on the doorstep. It’s frustrating that from every achievement we made during coalition, it is one woeful compromise that is made to define our time in government.

But despite the bombasts of Corbyn’s comrades and so-called progressives in Labour, ours is a record to be proud of. Under Liberal Democrat policy, more young people than ever are going to university, and even more of those are coming from disadvantaged backgrounds. Not only that but under our progressive approach, the lowest-earning 30% of graduates are paying less overall than under Labour’s broken system.

It’s easy for other parties to sit back and score political points by calling for the complete scrapping of fees, wilfully ignoring the fatal flaws seen in Scotland, where strict student caps mean the rich are now four times more likely to go to university than those from less well-off backgrounds. As Liberal Democrats, we should be going further, to build on our legacy with pragmatic, sensible and bold liberal policy to encourage, protect and inspire the country’s future doctors, teachers, and leaders.

I’m proud that we are a party that is enshrined in building a society where everyone is given the same opportunities irregardless of their background. But I also feel that is why we should be standing out from the noise and calling for bold measures to support students, such as new universal grants to all full-time students to support their living costs, at a similar scale as the existing maintenance loans (in excess of £9,000 annually).

University is a time for young people to learn and have fun, not to be mulled down by financial worries, yet 1 in 5 students in 2019 were forced to work two jobs to meet the rising cost of student living. These substantial grants would level the playing field between these students and their better-off peers who can dedicate more time to their studies because they don’t need to work.

And with 67% of students saying their mental health has been negatively affected by cash concerns, these grants would also lift considerable pressure on students’ mental well-being, reducing the strain on underfunded mental health services. While at the same time cutting the total debt students leave university with by lessening the reliance on maintenance loans.

The total dismantling of the tuition fee structure would engender the destruction of years of our progress to give more people the chance to study in higher education, benefiting the richest the most and shutting out the most disadvantaged. While this policy prioritises student quality of life, not the bills of wealthy graduates, works to close the attainment gap and keeps opportunities open to everyone. This is a policy that appeals to the core tenets of our shared ideology; equality, dignity and diversity, that is why, as liberals; we shouldn’t waste money scrapping tuition fees.

* Miguel Smith is the North East Regional Chair of the Young Liberals.

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  • James Fowler 24th Aug '22 - 6:17pm

    I don’t think that the 9000 pound annual fee is anything to be proud of, any more so than the 1000 and 3000 pound fees that preceded it. The fees are the worst of all worlds: random numbers picked arbitrary by governments, bearing no relationship to the value of what is obtained. University should either be free, or the price of courses determined individually by Universities themselves.

  • @ Miguel Smith ” in Scotland, where strict student caps mean the rich are now four times more likely to go to university than those from less well-off backgrounds”.

    Interested to note you are a Regional Chair of the Young Liberals in the North East, Miguel. Given your above comments, could you please explain why the fees for someone working on a post grad PhD at Newcastle University are more than twice as high as they are at a Scottish University ?

  • Miguel, while I can understand your wish to emphasise the achievements we made in coalition, but Tuition Fees was not “one woeful compromise” but in fact was “one of far too many woeful surrenders.” We had a leadership who were far too keen to show that coalition could work and to prove that the Lib Dems could take tough decisions in government. Sadly it ended with us willingly taking the blame for most of the tough decisions in government and then letting the Conservatives totally undermine us in the run up to the 2015 General election. As a consequence we lost any chance of us being part of a coalition again for a long, long time – and not the week that some like telling us is a long time in politics.

    We have students post 2010 still left with massive debts, which they get reminded of each month in their payslips and annually in their statement from the Student Loans Company. Just think about how they would react to if we proposed that Student Grants, which oldies like me received, should be given to new students, but they would be the abandoned generation in the middle, saddled with debt – about 4 to 5 million of them. 4 to 5 million who have maybe just about got to accept it wasn’t quite *all* our fault.

  • Peter Watson 25th Aug '22 - 9:08am

    “The total dismantling of the tuition fee structure …”
    Setting aside the pros and cons of tuition fees, this article appears to be explaining why a high profile policy (scrapping tuition fees) was completely wrong.
    Since that emerged from the policy-making process of a party that prides itself on being member-led and democratic, but was – rightly, we are told – thrown out by a few at the top of the party, it raises important doubts and questions about the competence of the party and its processes.

  • Gwyn Williams 25th Aug '22 - 9:27am

    It is over a decade since the Liberal Democrats in coalition with the Tories broke the Pledge to abolish tuition fees in England and tripled them instead. Labour introduced tuition fees in 1998 having promised not to in the 97 Election and then tripled them to £3000 after promising not to in the 2001 Election. Blair then went onto win the 2005 Election. The crude political calculation, made by Nick Clegg et al that if Labour could survive ratting not once but twice on students so could the Lib Dems, was wrong.
    As David Steel observed following the Thorpe Affair that the Liberal Party had to radically reinvent itself as the Alliance. Some say that if nothing had been done the Party would have recovered anyway by the 1990s. The current consensus in the Party that time will heal the wounds of tuition fees may turn out to be true. It won’t be before 2024. It will require a long period of Labour government when they fail to reduce fees or radically tackle growing student debt.

  • Peter Watson 25th Aug '22 - 9:28am

    “more young people than ever are going to university, and even more of those are coming from disadvantaged backgrounds”
    It’s not something I’ve looked at for several years, but I used to regularly point out that such claims are significantly flattered by unrelated changes that made nursing a degree-level career. Nursing became the most popular degree subject, quite probably with a different demographic make-up than traditional university applicants, but these students were insulated from Coalition policy by having tuition fees and bursaries paid by the NHS.

  • Richard Younger-Ross 25th Aug '22 - 10:10am

    We have handled this issue badly from the start. In 2009 the Parliamentary proposed going to a graduate tax to replace Labour and Tory tuition fees. The Federal Party rejected this seeking to maintain our simple opposition to tuition fees. The campaigns team told all candidates in 2010 to sign the NUS pledge not to oppose tuition fees. I along with a few other MPs saw the potential problem and refused to sign it opting in stead to promise to work for a fairer system. It is the broken pledge that I am still reminded of. My arguement against tuition fees is the same now as it was then, it is wrong to sadlle people with a debt, even if it is one they may never have to pay off. Transition from the loan scheme to a graduate will be costly and complicated to ensure no student losses out but is still in my view worth changing to. As a former NLYL officer I would hope that the current YLs would support such a radical move.

  • David Garlick 25th Aug '22 - 10:55am

    Look at ways to scrap them. Take a leaf out of the USA playbook and reduce them by £!,000 a year.
    At the same time reduce the debt accounts of those not earning enough to repay anything by £1000 a year too.

  • Peter Watson 25th Aug '22 - 11:38am

    @Ian Sanderson (RM3) “those in the government had to support it as it was agreed government policy”
    The Coalition Agreement allowed Lib Dems to abstain, so those who voted for it were not obliged to do so. I recall that a (horrible!) defence offered at the time was that it would cancel out the votes of their colleagues who were honouring their pledge to vote against increasing tuition fees. Though the coalition agreement itself also shows that Lib Dem MPs were preparing to break their pledges within days of making those promises.
    Regardless of tuition fees per se, it often seems to be overlooked – or deliberately ignored – that, having made well-publicised pledges to vote in a particular way and having run a high-profile election campaign on “no more broken promises”, Lib Dem MPs destroyed trust in the party which entirely changed the way it was perceived across the board.

  • Peter Watson 25th Aug '22 - 12:40pm

    “under our progressive approach”
    As far as I recall, the system means that graduates with high salaries who pay off their loan early, especially those from families who could afford to pay the fees in advance instead of taking the loan, could be considerably better off than their less affluent peers.

  • Peter Watson 25th Aug '22 - 12:47pm

    “the fatal flaws seen in Scotland, where strict student caps mean the rich are now four times more likely to go to university than those from less well-off backgrounds”

    So what exactly is Scottish Lib Dem policy? Is the party calling for students there to pay tuition fees?

  • Russell Simpson 25th Aug '22 - 1:50pm

    No one has a go at May for her breaking her commitment re care and she was a couple of seats shy of a majority. Libdem members of all people should understand how a coalition works. I don’t at all feel embarrassed about tuition fees. Frustrated? Yes. And it’s not really debt. Seems reasonable that relatively well remunerated graduates contribute to their degree cost given they earn about £10k extra pa.

  • David Evans 25th Aug '22 - 4:39pm

    Ian Sanderson, I am afraid you are quite simply wrong when you say “those in the government had to support it as it was agreed government policy” because it was an agreed part of the Coalition Agreement that all Lib Dem MPs, including those in Government positions, could abstain on any vote on Tuition Fees. We have to remember the facts or we end up forgetting the lessons we have learned.

  • Peter Watson 25th Aug '22 - 5:36pm

    Regarding Scotland, I don’t know if there are any figures available, but it would be interesting to compare data for Scottish students who stay in Scottish universities (and have their fees paid for them) and those who come to study in England & Wales (and have to repay their tuition fees).

    Did the tuition fees suppress Scottish demand for English and Welsh university places? Is there any difference in the demographics of those who come south and those who do not? Did that change after 2012?

    It would be great evidence to support the case made in the article if a significantly higher proportion of poorer Scottish students came to England in order to benefit from repaying much larger student loans.

  • Steve Trevethan 25th Aug '22 - 5:38pm

    Why do we charge our children for learning skills?
    Might it be that the more skilful and knowledgable our citizenry, the more successful and powerful our country would be?
    HMG has to create more money to put into society, to enable homes and private enterprise to function,than it regains in taxes, so why not make all tertiary education free?
    Might it be the case that money is only a simulation of wealth with real wealth being resources which are natural resources and the skills and knowledge of the citizenry?

  • Kyle Harrison 25th Aug '22 - 8:37pm

    The Lib Dems in the 00s were more left wing than the Labour govt, which was quite a strange situation really. Surely liberals should be to the right than Labour? But more socially liberal than Tories? Once Labour shifted left again out of govt the Lib Dems lefty mid 00s support was always likely to be in trouble.

  • David Evans 25th Aug '22 - 8:52pm

    Kyle, I’m afraid your analysis is misguided. Our lefty vote as you put it in the 00s was very much concentrated in Conservative areas, where Labour had no chance, but we could beat the Tories. And this vote generally stuck with us and grew over the years. It would have stayed if we hadn’t made a total horlicks of coalition and alienated them.

  • @Steve Trevethan – Why do we charge our children for learning skills?
    Wrong question.
    Might it be that the more skilful and knowledgable our citizenry, the more successful and powerful our country would be?
    This is a good starting point, changing your question to more of: how do we encourage our children to stay in the UK and use their skills for the benefit of our country.
    As has been pointed out above, the repayment of student loans is a carrot to encourage people to take up degrees in nursing and medicine and work in the NHS – take your learning abroad and for those years you’ll need to repay the loan yourself.

    If we look at Germany, they don’t charge but still, have the problem of insufficient graduates going into health care because they can earn more aboard and don’t have loan repayments to worry about.

  • Steve Trevethan 26th Aug '22 - 8:15am

    There no need to charge for education as the government has to put its non-debt created money into the economy to make it work anyway.
    Why not channel it through doing something useful rather than, say, buy crap medical equipment?
    Do we employ skilled people trained in other countries?
    If so why?
    Cuba, which is not a rich country, has a policy of educating medical staff who then work beyond Cuba to help countries in need of such support.
    Might this be a truly liberal policy which we should also use?

  • Peter Martin 26th Aug '22 - 8:51am

    Many neoliberal economists are fond of making the argument that government borrowing is fine providing it is used for capital investment.

    However, their definition of capital investment would probably include the cost of the lecture theatres, libraries, admin blocks etc in our universities but it doesn’t include the costs of university teaching and other staff. It doesn’t include maintenance costs. It doesn’t include the costs of supporting students with living costs etc.

    This way of looking at ‘investment’ makes little sense. It should all be regarded as investment or nothing should.

  • One less-mentioned consequence of the tuition fee reforms you brought in, is that they have led to massive underfunding of the university sector in the last decade which is set to get considerably worse.

    Under the old scheme – even under Labour’s £3k fees – the majority of teaching funding was paid openly by the government. It could be quietly increased by inflation each year without issue.

    Under this scheme, the £9.25k is still paid by the government in the first instance, but because it attaches as a personal debt to each student for the purposes of creative accounting, every single further increase to that is extremely politically costly – as a result, it has only been increased by inflation once since its introduction.

    And therefore, the vast majority of English universities now make a loss on teaching home undergraduates. So far they’ve managed to deal with this by recruiting more international students and overcharging them to balance the books, by massively and continually cutting staff pay and conditions leading to annual industrial action, and by cutting staff/student ratios to the bone. Soon, some are likely to fail entirely.

    Well done!

  • @Steve Trevethan
    >Why not channel it through doing something useful rather than, say, buy crap medical equipment?
    Ha ha! Politicians spending taxpayers monies sensibly… HS2 – circa £2 billion a year now on political vanity …

    >Do we employ skilled people trained in other countries?

    Cuba, …, has a policy of educating medical staff who then work beyond Cuba

    Some years back I remember we were discussing this on LDV.
    It made sense for the NHS to participate in the global development of staff, so people could come here for 3~5 years and then move on – similarly UK educated medical personnel would be able to avail themselves of similar foreign opportunities. However, some clouded matters by insisting these temporary workers should be given the permanent right to remain… Obviously Brexit, CoViD etc have made the world a bigger place…

  • @Peter Martin Re: “government borrowing … for capital investment.”

    I think this is where perceptions differ. I agree neoliberal economists will have a strict definition of capital investment, namely building the university and stocking the library etc. but exclude the operational staffing costs and maintenance costs.

    However, to the general public they would regard a functioning university as a capital investment. ie. capital plus n years of operation.

  • Steve Trevethan 26th Aug '22 - 4:12pm

    Alas, private enterprise can be as or more inept and corrupt as state personnel. Corruption and ineptitude can occur wherever there are people and a lack of honest energetic oversight.

  • George Thomas 26th Aug '22 - 4:12pm

    Further up the homepage there is a post calling for change to voting system in part to restore trust in politics with various Tory scandals mentioned and no comment on tuition fees. Nick Clegg – him of facebook fame and all their scandals he now publicly defends for massive wages – was a massive part of loss of trust in politics and we can’t escape from that.

    We need more and more people graduating to fill gaps in various public services. Increasing tuition fees appeared to make students more demanding of their Universities (not necessarily a bad thing but did change relationship between University as an employer and staff members which many would say is for the worse), made them more focused on maximising opportunities (not necessarily a bad thing but has made arts privilege for the wealthy) and more focused on getting well paying job as soon as possible on outside (it quite often pays more to be a banker than police officer). The change might have had a net positive but seems dishonest to suggest criticism is unjustified.

  • The recent changes to student loans are quite significant as Martin Lewis points out ‘This is a big increase to the cost of uni’
    The problem with the rationale for promoting University degrees as a means of providing more opportunities for pursuing financially rewarding careers is that; If students are successful in securing a high paying job they are then categorised as richer folk and the target for higher taxes even as they are paying 9% extra tax on earnings over £26k.
    The system in place mirrors that of a graduate tax with 44% of loans never being repaid. Under the recent changes this is forecast to fall to 19%.

  • Miguel, there have been 30 comments on your article, including several addressing questions to you. It is disappointing that in four days, you haven’t found the time to provide any responses to comments from fellow liberals who have shown an interest and asked questions or pointed out perceived weaknesses in your article. We need to talk, listen and engage with each other, not just preach from on high.

  • Graduates paying marginal rates of tax of over 40% (NI + income tax + graduate loan repayment) on average incomes will stymie growth for decades to come. Present system is a graduate tax in all but name, so lets do it properly : A graduate tax that is lower than the present 9% but kicks in at a higher point (150% of average earnings ??), is life long and has no upper limit. So the nurse or teacher pays relatively little but the stockbroker (choose your own pantomime villain) contributes plenty. The main problem with the present arrangement is that it is deeply regressive.
    I tried to argue for a progressive graduate tax when I cornered Ming Campbell (name dropping) at a meeting at Hatfield Polytechnic back in the early 1990s. My argument was rejected then but i’m still not convinced I was wrong.

  • Miguel Smtih 31st Aug '22 - 11:19am

    @Gwyn Williams Yeah it’s disappointing that we face such harsh criticism for tuition fees even ten years on, while Labour seemingly got away with it twice. But I think the big issue is how the party presented itself during the coalition years. It was the first coalition in more than fifty years and Clegg saw it as his responsibility to make sure that a coalition can work. This led to our ministers being very tightly-lipped about inner workings and conflicts within government, and I think inevitably caused our achievements to be swallowed up by the bigger party while tuition fees and the compromises we were forced to make stood out.

  • Miguel Smith 31st Aug '22 - 11:23am

    @David Evans Hi David, sorry I haven’t been as active in the comments as I should be. This is my first opinion piece on here and I’m still getting used to it 🙂

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