Opinion: Browne review is a perfect opportunity

At conference I spoke about the importance of retaining our character in coalition and the importance of having distinctive policies to ensure that, come the next election, people remain clear about the Liberal Democrats and what we stand for.

The Browne review on university funding and tuition fees gives us the perfect opportunity to differentiate ourselves from the other parties.

We have campaigned against tuition fees for years, while Labour introduced them and raised them and the Conservatives seek to create a free market model for our universities.

Part of the coalition agreement included allowing the Liberal Democrat MPs to abstain from voting on a rise in tuition fees. The ground was prepared long before the Browne report was published.

To be seen to support an increase in tuition fees removes our consistency of message. It confuses people as to what we stand for. It undermines the work we have done over years and years of campaigning and means that the difference we have cultivated is shot to pieces in a few short days.

If we accept a rise of up to £7,000 in tuition fees and agree to a loan scheme, which could see young people taking on up to 30 years of debt, then there is no way that we can ever promise to be working toward scrapping tuition fees again. Imagine in 2020, saying to voters: ‘the economy is better now, we can think about getting rid of tuition fees as per our 2010 manifesto. Sorry to those of you that got caught in the high fee era’?

Introducing the Browne proposals also conflicts with another key message. At a time when we are saying that debt is bad, that the personal and national debts should be tackled we are also indicating that huge amounts of personal debt is acceptable, if you are paying for an education.

So what do the Liberal Democrats stand for? Debt or no debt? The scrapping or raising of tuition fees?

Putting aside your own personal views on university funding, there is no question that this is our time to prove our individuality; to stick to those principles, that policy, the manifesto and do everything in our power to stop the cost of a university education more than doubling.

By challenging the Browne report and finding ways to, at least, retain the status quo and work toward scrapping tuition fees, then the Liberal Democrats will send a strong, consistent message to the public.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Whilst I have to admire your optimism I’m afraid that the leadership of the party however, will take no notice of your comments whatsoever. Those of yourself and fellow Lib Dem members. They are hell-bent on supporting the coalition no matter what.

    Just as Blair convinced himself that his actions over Iraq were ‘right’ and in the national interest dismissing all protestations, Clegg and Co have convinced themselves that they too have the monopoly on ‘national interest’. Thus, anything they do must be right and any arguments to the contrary must be wrong simply. And they do say history repeats itself. It a shame that democratic policies have been so easily cast aside, that promises so easily broken and that so many young students will be denied higher education. An ex Lib Dem voter.

  • The policy on tuition fees is and always was wrong.

    People of all backgrounds think nothing of mortgaging themselves 30 to 40 years into the future to buy a house. In the past, they have often been able to cash in a windfall when eventually it is sold and they downsize.

    All we’re doing here is encouraging people to borrow a trivial sum (by comparison to housing) to hugely increase their future earning power. And the beauty of Browne is that if the golden egg DOESN’T arrive, they don’t even have to pay it back.

    At present we have far too many people on a mindless conveyorbelt into mediocre courses that don’t benefit the student or the wider economy. Far, far better to progress to a system that has Universities that cater for a subject-oriented minority, and a polytechnic sector offering robust, practical vocational degrees, and an expanded apprenticeship/technical sector offering people real practical skills.

    Browne will ensure that only those who truly love their subject will follow it – and allow University lecturers to lavish their attention on those who would most benefit from it rather than spread themselves far too thinly as at present.

  • Colin Green 19th Oct '10 - 6:46pm


    “All we’re doing here is encouraging people to borrow a trivial sum (by comparison to housing) to hugely increase their future earning power.”

    By a trivial sum I assume the £30k plus that it will cost to go to university plus 3 years lost salary and by hugely increase their salary, typically £2.5k per year. Very few graduates earn “mega bucks” salaries, doctors and lawyers most obviously. Teachers, graduate nurses, engineers, lab scientists and other more typical graduates earn a comfortable living but the £10k+ student loans and 9% graduate tax eat into those extra earnings.

    I don’t think it is wrong for students to contribute to the cost of their education but I can’t let you use words like trivial and hugely unchallenged.

  • Well, if you want to kill the Browne review – so be it: wouldn’t that be a success? The reputation of the party may well benefit greatly – but beware of unintended (but fairly predictable) consequences.

    What’s not in the Browne review (but could be deduced from it by reading between its lines) is that university teaching grants will be cut by 80%. Research grants will also be significantly cut – in fact, some areas, such as the Arts & Humanities, are likely to see 100% (!!! yes – that’s ALL of it) cuts in state funding for teaching and research.

    It looks as if this great university cut will be part of the Spending Review, independent of the Browne Review.

    So, if you want to help students, you’d have to stop those cuts, too (presumably by finding other parts of the Business budget where that money could be cut). If the cuts go ahead, and if the Browne proposals aren’t implemented to fill the gap, we can all say good bye to UK universities.

    Would be a pity to free students from tuition fees (or at least prevent a fee rise), but inadvertently ensuring that a large number of universities go to the wall, thereby depriving many potential students of places to go to for a degree.

  • vince thurnell 19th Oct '10 - 7:30pm

    Is this the only issue that bothers your party ?. Half a million people are going to be thrown on the scrapheap tomorrow , social housing is about to be all but scrapped with thousands of the poor facing massive rent increases , yet the only thing the Lib Dems keep harping on about in endless threads is the tuition fees. So much for caring about the less well off in the country.

  • Completely off-topic, but this website’s editors need to quickly post about the possible cuts to defence spending, not carry on about the tuition fees. Don’t get me wrong, they are important, but the long term foreign policy implications of these cuts are deep and could strike to the very heart of Liberal Democrat foreign policy and internationalism.

    Can someone please get this discussion started now.

  • @Tabman
    “People of all backgrounds think nothing of mortgaging themselves 30 to 40 years into the future to buy a house. In the past, they have often been able to cash in a windfall when eventually it is sold and they downsize.”

    That’s the kind of economic illiterate thinking that caused the finanical meltdown. Houses are a depreciating asset (unless they’re being rented out) as over the long run their ‘price’ increases with wage inflation which is marginally more than the interest one receives on a savings account. That marginal advantage is more than wiped out by the costs of maintaining the house and servicing the interest on the mortgage. The bigger a house you buy to live in the bigger the loss you will sustain by the time you come to downsize at the end of your working life.

    Over the short term house prices go up and down for various reasons – at the moment they’re going down because they went up massively due to a huge credit orgy which has now been removed.

    I don’t agree with your views on the Browne proposals. They are very regressive for anyone earning high salaries (assuming a uniform rate of interest for all earners above the 21k threshold).

    From my calculations for a 30k loan at 5% interest and assuming wage inflation at 3% per annum and 21k threshold adjusted by 3% annually throughout:

    Someone earning (inflation adjusted) equivalent of 20k pays 0% of their total gross salary over 30 years.
    Someone earning (inflation adjusted) equivalent of 25k pays 2.2% of their total gross salary over 30 years.
    Someone earning (inflation adjusted) equivalent of 36.5k pays 4.8% of their total gross salary over 30 years. (worst case)
    Someone earning (inflation adjusted) equivalent of 50k pays 2.8% of their total gross salary over 30 years.
    Someone earning (inflation adjusted) equivalent of 100k pays 1.1% of their total gross salary over 30 years.
    Someone earning (inflation adjusted) equivalent of 500k pays 0.2% of their total gross salary over 30 years.

    The rich pay less of their labour towards higher education and the ones squeezed the most are those on typical graduate salaries in the mid-thirty thousands. Please tell me how that is fair.

  • Read please all those who are taking the line that fee increases will not put off students from less well off backgrounds….


  • Sorry, I got those figures wrong in my last comment. I forgot to add in the inflation in the total salary calculation – and I’ve corrected another mistake. Anyway these are the updated percentages of gross salary over 30 years. It’s actually people in the upper twenty thousands that would be worst hit for the example (assuming no more errors!):

    20k (0%)
    25k (3.1%)
    28k (3.7%) worst case
    50k (1.2%)
    100k (0.5%)
    500k (0.1%)

  • Tony Dawson 19th Oct '10 - 9:12pm

    What, pray, is this obsession with hitting the present and coming generations of graduates with complicated (hence costly-to-administer and easy-to-fiddle/avoid) procedures to get slightly richer graduates to pay more and poorer graduates to pay less? Given that most rich people are present/past graduates, what is the problem with making the odd wealthy non-graduate as well as the wealthy graduates (including past graduates who paid no fees), pay according to their means? Yes, you guessed it, a very small increase in Pay as You Earn at the top end. Cheap and efficient to administer. Fair.

  • Anthony Aloysius St 19th Oct '10 - 9:29pm


    Are you sure those figures are right? Someone on £25k would initially be paying 9% of £4k, or £360 a year, which is only about 1.5% of gross salary. Why should the percentage over 30 years be more than twice that?

  • Anthony Aloysius St 19th Oct '10 - 9:38pm

    “Read please all those who are taking the line that fee increases will not put off students from less well off backgrounds….”

    And that’s only one of the criticisms being levelled at the recommendations in that response from the Higher Education Policy Institute:
    “According to HEPI, Browne has failed to undertake important preparatory research, gets its facts wrong, is simplistic, fails to explain its reasoning, asserts conclusions on matters of dispute, comes to conclusions on the basis of detailed but unpublished calculations, fails to properly cost its proposals, gets confused about important issues, proposes schemes that are unworkable, ignores important concerns, draws implausible or unproven conclusions – and so on.”

    Vince Cable’s snap response looks like a grave misjudgment if that assessment is anywhere near right.

  • @Anthony Aloysius, yes you’re right and I’m wrong – should have taken more care before posting. These are correct:

    20k (0%)
    25k (1.45%)
    35.8k (3.73%)
    50k (1.76%)
    100k (0.71%)
    500k (0.14%)

    I plotted with the wrong x-axis in the second attempt, so it gave the wrong numbers when I read the values off.

    If the loan is 15k then the maximum percentage is 2.35% for a salary of 28.4k.

    The point I’m trying to make is that middle income earners are going to get hit the hardest – for example, it makes going to university and becoming a teacher even less attractive than before when compared to training to be a doctor or going into law or the city. I.e., the tax is regressive above middle incomes.

  • And because I’m quite sad, here’s the graph for the 30k loan example:

  • That HEPI report is indeed well worth reading (OK, I didn’t read the whole thing, just the quotes on that blogpost that Anthony Aloysius St linked to). For supporters of the Browne Review, it makes some fairly thought-provoking criticisms.

  • Steve,

    If you’d care to get a bit sadder still…. Perhaps you could look at some typical career progressions. Most people don’t have a fixed salary all their lives, they have a salary that rises to a plateau.

    My guess from your figures is that the worst hit will be young families on moderate incomes. Those who reach forty with good salaries will soon shrug off any remaining debts. More young couples driven to seek two full-time jobs, more children brought up by lower – skilled non-parents, while more of their parents can retire to the golf course despite being quite healthy enough to work. Amongst other things, payment from general taxation is the way an older generation supports its children – or used to do.

  • terence kelly 20th Oct '10 - 7:45am

    This is gesture politics. Driven by nothing than a desire to ‘appear’ as a distinct political entity. Either support it or not.

    Abstaining would be a cop out.

    Either you believe in the coalition’s aims or you are against fees. Shuffling around like a guilty schoolboy saying ‘it wasn’t me mister, it was them big kids’ is a ridiculous stance

  • Anthony Aloysius St 20th Oct '10 - 9:00am

    “That HEPI report is indeed well worth reading (OK, I didn’t read the whole thing, just the quotes on that blogpost that Anthony Aloysius St linked to). For supporters of the Browne Review, it makes some fairly thought-provoking criticisms.”

    I would echo that – of the reams of criticism that have appeared, it’s by far the most comprehensive and authoritative that I’ve seen. (The credit for finding it and the posting the link is paul’s, not mine, though.)

  • Dominic Alessio 20th Oct '10 - 10:59am

    £30,000 is far too high a debt to have after graduation – especially in a world of job insecurity. Thinking of the housing analogy below, “People of all backgrounds think nothing of mortgaging themselves 30 to 40 years into the future to buy a house” , couldn’t students entering Higher Ed. pay the money BUT after a term (say 30-40 years and before retirement) get it back (similar to an endowment scheme). They could then just pay the interest on the loan from another provider. The money paid by the student could go to a specific university or Higher Education fund, and the govt or university could benefit from the 30 year investment. After 30 years the returned money goes to pay off the loan – so banks are happy that they have a guaranteed return on their loan. And the graduates, whilst paying interest, at least don’t have the huge debtload.

  • David Cameron just repeated the lie that tuition fees are progressive. I find this as offensive as the lies told by Labour to justify the war in Iraq (and the lie told by Danny Alexander that VAT is progressive). It may not result in the loss of life of the Iraq invasion but these regressive measures will have vastly more impact on people’s lives in this Country.

    The IFS definition of progressive is not consistent with every economic definition. I find their propaganda repulsive.

  • Steve.

    How are the Browne proposals regressive?

  • @Maria
    George Osborne didn’t say much about funding of HE institutions in the CSR just now so we can keep talking about the 79% cuts implied by the Browne review. (He said BIS will be cut by 7.9% but I don’t know how that translates to HE).

    The prospect of 79% cuts to HE funding is very frightening and I have read that some universities see Browne’s proposals to raise fees becoming law as their only hope for adequate funding. The universities are being spineless over this. Higher fees are the easy way out for them.

    Each year, I decline to give money when my Oxford college calls me up, on the grounds that I am a state school teacher and that I firmly believe that university education should be funded by the state. (I went to university in 1998, the first year of fees, with an upfront ‘tax’ of £1000 per year, for which there was no loan available, just maintenance loans). This year, the student who rang me argued against my point and kept trying to sign me up for £50. The college then sent me a letter reiterating my views back to me and arguing that I was not being realistic, and that the government was likely to cut funding and this would penalise poorer students. Surely I wanted to help fund bursaries.

    I asked them why they were lobbying me when they should be using all their might to lobby the government.

    The universities should have fought these changes properly for the last 12 years, instead of pinning their hopes on raising fees and saying too little too late about issues such as closures of science departments as they occurred.

    Yes, without Browne, and in the interim period before Browne-style changes come in, a 79% cut would ruin universities. But then the government would have to step in and take notice. However, even with Lib Dem abstentions, Browne-style changes will probably get through.

    Lib Dem ministers absolutely must stick to Lib Dem policy on this, and abstain (or rebel!), because they wove the right to do so into the Coalition Agreement.

  • @Tabman
    “How are the Browne proposals regressive?”

    Eh?? I’ve already explained exactly why above. It involves a textbook definition of a regressive tax. The proposals are progressive up to a point, but regressive for those on above middle income salaries, which is not what the IFS report states.

  • Many of those whom pondered the option of voting LibDem in the last election did so because they were disallusioned with New Labour and Blair’s fundementally Thatcherite , business-ethic approach to areas such as education , higher ‘ed fees , and the NHS. We saw the LD party as an option .

    What we have seen since the elcection is an absolute underlining of the fact the LibDem party is NOT to be trusted or relied on. What we have seen is a troop of performing baboons begging for scraps , whilst Cameron exploits parliamentarty liberalism in the traditional manner of posturing alpha baboons.

    The fees issue is imperative simply because it makes or breaks libdem credibility.
    57 libdem parliamentarians, including the party leader, signed , what they lauded as a solemn pledge.
    That pledge, signed like any contract , vowed to oppose ANY increase in fees. They also promised in manifesto to remove them a.s.a.p.

    There is zero option here. Either the libdems want to be taken seriously by a growing section of the electorate, or they are happy to embrace another sixty years of being political also-rans, nonentities. That is what will happen.

    There is no credible defense for any action other than seeking to vote down fee hikes.
    What excuse will be offered ?
    ‘ We didn’t know things were as bad ? ‘ is that what will be stammered out as they kowtow to the alpha baboon ?.
    If that is the case why the heck were such rampant half-wits allowed to stand as constituency members.
    That feeble excuse will simply underline the unsuitability of libdems for any public office.
    It will scream to all and sundry that not only are they untrustworthy liars eager to leap at any short term self-agrandisment , but that they lack the most basic ability to operate any real ,contemorary, political comprehension.

    As for party members when the say ‘ I never agreed with that policy on fees anyway ‘. Here again we see a restressing of the credibility issue. Here again we see assertions , by libdems , that libdems are so vacuous , so untrustworthy , so base , and so fickle , that they will embrace any betrayal on the grounds it suits their personal preference and agenda, despite the fact they voted to support the party and its manifesto promises.

    Is that how the majority of libdems wish to be viewed ?.
    As desperate little opportunists so bedazzled with a glimmering of a ‘political moment’ they will discard all credibility for that moment in a short-lived sun ?

    I am a disallusioned Labour voter, I was looking fo a new political ‘home’. I had decided the LD party was it. Oh dear. How wrong I was .
    So far I haver seen an LD party demonstrate a pathetically desperate hunger for scant power at any cost.
    I have seen a party leadership happy to renegle on their own , and party , promises used to secure new votes.

    I have seen a party behave in a manner bound to convince me that voting tactical-Labour is the only way to prevent Tory mayhem , because the LibDems not only have no interest in becoming a credible , viable party… The LibDems have zero interest in being even a fringe partty with credibility and integrity.

    Do party members , and their leadership grasp the real ramifications of these issues ?
    Or have they failed to realise ‘just how bad things are ‘ again.

    The liberal party exists because people with conscience sought to oppose the worst exploitations by the wealthy as they exploited the majority. Liberalism was relative privilege with prevailing conscience.

    Apparently this recent arrival on the political scene, NewLiberalism , is a preparedness to lie , mislead, and break pledges , to secure a ministerial office and 15 minutes of fame ( or might that be infamy) at any cost in terns of integrity and honour.

    We are seeing the covert birth of a New form of liberalism. Ponder that all you NewLiberals . Where did the sobriquet New get the labour party ? If their shift to the right wing policy had worked , we wouldn’t be discussing the coalition would we.

  • PLEASE oppose these proposals and the associated cuts (taken together, the privatisation of higher education).

    Whatever measures are put in to help the very poor, the effect on students from low-moderate income families will be terribly unfair. If you can help your children – if you’re wealthy enough – you’ll try to help them out by paying off their fees early if you can; if you’re not well-off, this isn’t an option and your kids will be saddled with £30-40K debts for decades. Just because your mum & dad work in low-paying jobs, a financial disadvantage will pass onto you as well, whereas many of the kids of accountants, barristers, etc, will just shrug debts off. And, for many, the sheer size of the fees will just lead them to think university ‘isn’t for people like them’ – regardless of replayment options, the numbers will be too frightening.

    It was bad enough before the fees, as I can testify: my dear dad slipped me the odd £30 when he could help (my grant was largely swallowed up by the landlord); my richer mates were given cars and had houses bought for them. I think the proposed tuition fees will exacerbate such disparities.

    The unfairness is also illogical: by making the student pretty much pay 100% of their teaching costs, it assumes there’s NO benefit to society from graduates. Even taking a narrow financial view, there are plenty of non-grad jobs that wouldn’t exist without associated grad posts…. And before people complain about non-grads financing grads, remember that a degree isn’t necessary a passport to a well paid job – I’d say a successful plumber or tanker driver earns significantly more than most grads I know.

  • While I wholeheartedly agree with your statement in principle, in reality I just don’t see it happening. The Coalition are a team but The Lib Dems are undoubtedly the smaller part of that team and while it may seem important to differentiate when it comes to tuition fees, it won’t matter in the eyes of the public who voted for what only what actions took place as a result and ultimately the Lib Dems reputation will be tarnished by that – unfairly, in my opinion, I might add.

    Personally I dropped out of university (studying Chemistry) and am paying back my student loans, albeit slowly while working in The Prison Service – it’s a long story – so I know first hand that going to university doesn’t always lead to a well-paid job. Ultimately I think the days of the grant system are gone, never to return, but I’d hate to see England turn into America, where families save up for years and those that can’t don’t go to university unless they can pay for it by working at the same time. I fear that’s where we’re heading though….

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