Pack & Tall Debate… Tuition fees: what should Lib Dem party policy now be?

In the week of the publication of university application figures, LibDemVoice co-editors Mark Pack and Stephen Tall debate what it means for the Lib Dems’ future policy…

Stephen Tall: The publication of the University application figures for 2012 — the first year of the new £9k maximum fees regime — has something for everyone. Those who have always claimed the prospect of huge debt would deter potential students can point to the headline 8.7% decline in applications. Those who say the new fees repayments system is the best affordable deal can highlight that this year marks the second highest ever number of applications from teenagers, including for those from disadvantaged areas. Whichever side you take, these are in any case just one year’s figures: this debate will continue to rage.

Another debate which will rage is likely to be this: what should the Lib Dem policy on tuition fees now be? Officially, party policy remains unchanged from the 2010 manifesto: the Lib Dems are committed to abolishing them. However, we all know what happened after the general election: the biting reality of Coalition politics triggered an infamous U-turn. Can the party really enter the 2015 general election with the same policy that we reneged on in this parliament? And if not how should Lib Dem policy start adapting to the changed reality of the new fees policy?

Mark Pack: Both the economics and the politics of promising to abolishing tuition fees in the 2015 manifesto look pretty implausible to me. Even if we thought it was politically sensible to say “we didn’t do it last time, but we really mean it this time”, given the likely state of the nation’s finances in 2015 there is unlikely to be much money to spare for extra spending on policy priorities and there’s going to be a long list of other worthy causes to lay claim to what cash there is.

What might well be plausible on both fronts is a limited expansion of bursaries and the like so that tuition fees and maintenance costs are covered for a larger number of those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds. It would fit well with Nick Clegg’s passion for social mobility and the party’s wide message about building a fairer society.

Stephen Tall: I agree with you on both the economic and political implausibility of sticking to a ‘scrap fees’ policy which almost half the party’s MPs voted against. Yet I also find it implausible that the Lib Dem conference-voting members will find it in themselves to jettison a policy to which the party has been so wedded. I guess a compromise might be accommodated which sidelines the abolition of fees as a long-term aspiration impossible in present circumstances — in which case it risks becoming our Clause IV, a not-to-be-implemented policy which members cling to out of nostalgia but which simply reminds the public of a distinctly unglorious moment in our party’s history.

On your point about the party developing a more pragmatic policy of targeted assistance to help those groups most likely to be put off by fees, this seems to me essential. However, we need to ensure our thinking is informed by evidence of what actually works. As it happens in the example you cite, bursaries, the evidence so far indicates such assistance doesn’t actually help encourage the poorest to apply to university (though it may help in lowering drop-out rates). Too much educational policy in this country is based on personal hunches of what should work, and not enough on the reality of what will help. If the party wants to be taken seriously on access to higher education, it needs to start doing some proper policy heavy-lifting. And soon.

Mark Pack: The big untouched issue in higher education is the reliance on lectures – and on lecturers who aren’t trained in lecturing to boot. I say this as a former sometime university lecturer… We say the education is vital and yet let people get up in front of students and lecture with remarkably little in the way of training in many cases. Reputations and ratings do help push universities into doing rather more than they used to in order to ensure that lecturers do a good job, but even whey they do the central tool – the lecture – is still predominantly used in a very old fashioned way.

With the widespread availability of video on demand over the internet letting students watch the world’s best lecturers from previous decades at the click of a mouse, the idea that there should be widespread use of an inexperienced, under-trained person who stands up and talks for 55 minutes is very much in need of questioning.

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30 Comments

  • I’ve done some thinking on this here. We should now, I think, be pushing for radical change in HE to prove that free(er) markets can produce cost and quality improvements that are claimed for them. We didn’t impose nine grand fees, we allowed institutions to do so. We know many could do it cheaper and better and need to champion ideas that will do this.

  • Andrew Suffield 1st Feb '12 - 2:29pm

    The big untouched issue in higher education is the reliance on lectures

    I disagree. The big untouched issue is every damn thing other than what it costs. Nobody wants to talk about anything but finance.

    Can we have some policy regarding universities that relates to what happens in universities? Please?

  • I would suggest the following in 2015:
    (1) Admit it was a mistake for candidates to sign the pledge and apologise for the fact that most of the MPs broke it
    (2) Say that regrettably it won’t be feasible to reverse the increase in fees
    (3) Waffle a bit about increased bursaries and other support for those from poor backgrounds
    (4) Move on as swiftly as possibly to another subject.

  • john stevens 1st Feb '12 - 3:06pm

    The real issue is how to persuade the electorate we are truly committed to whatever policy we propose. There has to be some act of apology for all those pledges. Taking George Osborne’s advice to just pass by on the other side is not an option.

  • What might well be plausible on both fronts is a limited expansion of bursaries and the like so that tuition fees and maintenance costs are covered for a larger number of those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds. It would fit well with Nick Clegg’s passion for social mobility and the party’s wide message about building a fairer society.

    This is almost exactly the US system, except in that situation loans/fees aren’t covered by the state (how are you going to pay for it, we still don’t know, etc).

    Look at their stats for access across social indexes to see what the likely outcome of such a policy in the UK would be. Not good.

  • Sid Cumberland 1st Feb '12 - 4:05pm

    The way we teach is a huge issue – and not just in universities. Anyone who is interested in how the future might look will probably have seen this already: https://www.youtube.com/user/khanacademy

    (If you haven’t, do have a look!)

  • No doubt it’s worth questioning how we teach in universities, but probably more important questions are why we are putting nearly half the population through a three-year degree course around the age of 18 and whether we should be doing so – or whether the huge resources being devoted to that could be more useful directed elsewhere.

    Those questions are very rarely discussed, and when they are the arguments for the status quo generally jump from “Education is a Good Thing” to “Half the population should have degrees” with no intermediate steps.

  • Mark
    “The big untouched issue in higher education is the reliance on lectures – and on lecturers who aren’t trained in lecturing to boot. I say this as a former sometime university lecturer… We say the education is vital and yet let people get up in front of students and lecture with remarkably little in the way of training in many cases. Reputations and ratings do help push universities into doing rather more than they used to in order to ensure that lecturers do a good job, but even whey they do the central tool – the lecture – is still predominantly used in a very old fashioned way.”

    I was going to write a very long rant in response to these comments but I have a lecture to prepare (and yes, I might even use some new-fangled gadgetry to enliven he proceedings). There is plenty of scope for the Lib-Dems to build a comprehensive and progressive analysis of the current situation in HE. There are so many big unanswered questions as to exactly what it is we want HE to do now and in the future. To start with lecturer bashing, praising the discipline imposed by league tables and micro-managing what happens in the classroom, seems to combine the worse elements of both the Tories and Labour. Surely the Lib-Dems can do better? Get the vision right first. Consulting with some actual lecturers to find out what is happening on the ground would be a good place to begin.

  • I fully supported our policy and would still sign the pledge today. But by 2015 we will face a number of problems.

    1. The financial cost of abolition is the least of them – we could ask high earners (most of whom are older graduates and paid nothing for their university education) to pay for that by asking them to pay a supertax on their incomes, just as we are doing with young graduates who can afford much less.

    2. The immediate problem – ignored by the coalition when it introduced the hike – is intergenerational fairness. By 2015 the first generation of students will have paid (or incurred a debt of) £27,000 plus living expenses – or if you prefer a liability to pay a supertax of 9%pa on their income for a very long time. They are already pissed off that the cohort above them have incurred less than £10,000, and they will be decidedly miffed if we decide to abolish tuition fees altogether for new students.

    We dealt with this problem in 2010 by saying we would start by abolishing tuition fees in the final year. But could we do this for students coming to the end of their 3rd year? It would be messy: it would be fairly easy to cancel part of their debt, but we would also need to refund those students who had paid cash. And what about students who have taken two-year courses?

    3. Finally there is the problem of credibility. Nobody will believe we can win, and after December 2010 nobody will believe that we will stand up to our coalition partners if we are still in government.

    So it seems to me that the best options are:

    (a) Stick with the current policy of wanting to abolish tuition fees but doing exactly the opposite until 2015 and then go into the next election with a policy which is the same as the best our opponents (probably Labour) are offering, or (much better)

    (b) Develop a new policy which can be introduced as part of the Coalition’s mid-term review – a bit like John Major replaced the poll tax with a heavily subsidised council tax, on which we can demonstrate our resolve to the electorate and particularly students either by persuading the Tories to support us or by fighting them all the way.

    Here are some suggestions:
    – start waiving tuition fees in the final year (before the first cohort gets to its third year) if necessary with Labour support
    – introduce much clearer criteria so that poorer students know where they stand for who should be entitled to zero tuition fees (with a sliding scale so we don’t end up with an all-or-nothing lottery) as well as a reasonably generous quota of state-funded bursaries at each university for which all students can compete
    – make the loans interest-free
    – reduce the super-tax rate from 9% to 3% so that young graduates are not deterred from working hard (and staying in the UK)
    – allow UK residents to trade their loan for a deferral of three years (or whatever is the equivalent length of their degree) in the date when they will become eligible for the state pension (statistics show that graduates keep working longer anyway).

  • How about shortening course length? It doesn’t take 3 years to learn the material.

    If you cut out all the lecture hours a degree could probably be cut to one year. Modern universities could concentrate on students learning from the text book (which is what most do in the end anyway if my course was anything to go by) and from online media. Thus the function of the uni would be to provide the structure of the course, tutorial support to answer questions etc, and the examination.

    It’s completely baffling to me that universities actually pay lecturers to stand up year after year and deliver precisely the same words, formulae and diagrams. Why not record the damn things?

    For me though, there remains a wider question as to the value of university education. The vast majority of students know from the outset that they don’t want a job in their field of study. For someone embarking on a career in management consultancy, what value does an expertise in physics / history / French literature really hold?

    I agree that the way we ditched the pledge was a total disaster. But I wasn’t sorry to see the back of the policy, and if I were PM and had some extra treasury cash to spend, I’d see investmest in primary and secondary education as a far higher priority.

  • The evidence is that neither the level of fees, the level of waivers or the level of bursaries made any difference to which univs had a good recruitment year, and which had a bad one – see my CentreForum blog post for details, (or the Guardian’s reporting of it, here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2012/jan/30/uk-university-applications-drop-ucas).

    If we are serious about social mobility we have to ask ourselves why kids from poor backgrounds do so badly. They do much better in London than elsewhere, and getting the poor non-London kids up to the standards of the poor London kids would be a great start. (see Gill Wyness’ CF article, London Schooling).

    Raising the point at which graduates repay from £21k is not sensible. The beneficiaries will be largely well-off graduates – and paid for, presumably from general taxation. The same is true for cutting the repayment rate from 9%. These are expensive things to do.

  • “For me though, there remains a wider question as to the value of university education. The vast majority of students know from the outset that they don’t want a job in their field of study. For someone embarking on a career in management consultancy, what value does an expertise in physics / history / French literature really hold?”

    It ticks a box.

  • Mark

    Thanks for your reply. The detail of how students are taught is of course important and many new teaching methods, i.e. videoing lectures, distance learning, skype tutorials, seminars in Second Life, you name it, are all in use across the sector. You are right, it is a two -way flow. The work in the class feeds the wider vision and vice-versa. However, while political parties can influence the teaching environment, albeit sometimes at their peril, they should clearly be in the business of creating a direction for the sector as a whole.

    The main question that is not being answered in any straightforward way is what we think Higher education is for? Once that is decided, how we organise HE institutions to deliver a variety of desired educational outcomes might be undertaken in a more rational manner. The withdrawal of core funding from social sciences and humanities is a clear indicator of current government priorities. Is this also Lib Dem policy? While STEM subjects are crucial, the social sciences, humanities and the creative arts are also central in maintaining and developing a liberal, progressive and, dare I say, pleasurable society. What is the desirable balance of these different disciplines? How do we ensure they can be accessed by all and not, as many critics of the tuition fees state, only by those who can afford to speculate on a non-vocational subject? These are clear areas where the Lib Dems can develop sound policy.

    It also seems clear that we are re-drawing the old educational hierarchies between vocationalism and a more ‘traditional’ university education through a process of neglect or in deference to pseudo -market processes. However, this process can be directed to achieve desirable ends. For example, why not call for a new industry endorsed, rigorous 2 year HE diploma in vocational subjects? This type of course operates successfully in other countries alongside the more traditional academic 3 year degrees.
    Appropriate and innovative teaching methods can more easily be devised when lecturers know what it is they are supposed to achieve. At the moment they are expected to be world-class researchers, innovative educationalist and vocational skills trainers. The fact that some manage all three, is testament to the dedication of many in the sector. Some thoughtful policies from the Lib Dems can move the HE debate beyond student numbers, financial issues and wearisome gripes at‘ Mickey Mouse’ degrees. The other parties have left a large whole that is waiting to be filled.

  • “Raising the point at which graduates repay from £21k is not sensible. The beneficiaries will be largely well-off graduates – and paid for, presumably from general taxation.”

    That’s a complete contradiction. If a greater share of the burden of payment rests with progressive general taxation rather than regressive fees (rich graduates pay less), then rich graduates/non-graduates will actually be paying more for the funding of HE.

  • Steve – no it isn’t – the typical beneficiary of raising the starting point for student loan repayments has annual earnings of £35k, and lifetime earnings of £1.8m – the rest of the tax system is not that progressive!

  • Guy Patterson 2nd Feb '12 - 6:45pm

    Of course it is a graduate tax. No one pays any fees, be they rich or poor. The party can rest content with that. The argument should be all about taxing graduates: the threshold and the rate.

  • Paul McKeown 2nd Feb '12 - 7:10pm

    Leave well alone?

    Surely the LDs have nothing to gain from this issue, but lots to lose?

    It is a graduate tax, but the LDs have managed to turn this into a presentational disaster, which is viewed by many as some dreadful post-nursery Thatcherite milk-snatching. So make it clear that it is a graduate tax and a better outcome for most students in real terms than was presented in either the Conservative or Labour Party manifestos and better, in the long run, for tax payers than in the LD manifesto.

    Apart from that, leave the issue of degree funding well alone!

  • I have read all the comments above and what is clear is that the fallout from “The Fees” episode has left LibDems bewildered, almost shell-shocked. I fear the LD Party hasn’t a clue what to do re. Higher Education policy for the future. In order for the LibDems to do respectably at the next election, credibility and reputation that was lost because of the fees U-turn needs to be restored. But I (like the commentators here) don’t know how.

  • Richard Swales 3rd Feb '12 - 12:18pm

    Whether we call it a loan or a capped graduate tax, it is unacceptable in any case.
    We don’t have a back-to-work tax, to recover living and training expenses provided to job seekers.
    We don’t have a victim tax, for previous users of police services.
    We don’t have a well-again tax. for previous users of health services.
    We don’t have a sports tax, for previous beneficiaries of sports funding

    Why should we have a tax or loan based on previous use of an arbitrary subset of government services?

    If the money isn’t there then let’s cut a branch of the armed services instead. It’s simply a question of priorities.

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