Phil Willis writes: fighting the right battles over Higher Education

That Lord Browne’s conveniently delayed report ‘SECURING A SUSTAINABLE FUTURE FOR HIGHER EDUCATION’ recommends a significant shift for the funding of university teaching from the state to the student or graduate is hardly surprising. Indeed in January 2004 when the introduction of ‘variable fees’ was pushed through the House by Alan Johnson I stated ‘the reality is that by 2009 it will not be possible to go back to a system of state funding our universities with flat-rate fees’.

I genuinely believed that to be the case then and despite the most noble of efforts by the Liberal Democrats to find a way to shift the burden of higher education on to higher rate tax payers many of us were arguing before the General Election that some form of ‘graduate contribution’ be it a straight forward graduate tax or a refined graduate contribution would be inevitable and desirable.

Inevitable because of the rise in student population and the decline in quality of provision in many of our universities – desirable because the current system was patently unfair, not progressive and simply did not guarantee the resources to ensure our HE system remained world class. The ‘failure’ of the Browne proposals (and to date they are simply proposals) is not the funding solution he proposes but the almost total lack of recognition that without fundamental institutional, pedagogical and organisational reform we will continue to short change our students, the nation and the nation’s future.

As they stand Vince Cable and the Liberal Democrats, rather than hide their heads in embarrassment should be congratulated in fighting for elements in the package that meet Liberal Democrat aspirations. As the IFS (not noted for their pro-liberal stance) concluded – the Browne proposals “are highly progressive and ensure that the poorest 30% of graduates are better off, whilst ensuring that the richest 30% of graduates pay off their loans in full”. Hardly an outcome that would have resulted from a Conservative government.

The proposals which preserve access to higher education from students of all backgrounds without the imposition of up front costs; the raising of the re-payment threshold; the extension of same financial conditions to part-time students; all have the hall marks of Liberal Democrat thinking. What we as a Party must now do is heed the advice of Simon Hughes and others who urge – not knee jerk headlines but studious examination of the Browne proposals before the White Paper is introduced and during the scrutiny of forthcoming legislation.

Nor must we get sucked into some blind defence of higher education without looking at it alongside Nick Clegg’s huge achievement of getting the ‘pupil premium’ cemented into the government’s spending commitments. This proposal to support the educationally disadvantaged get parity with their more affluent peers has potentially far greater significance to the Liberal Democrats campaign for social justice than what may be compromised post 19. Equally we must not allow the FE sector and adult skills become the sacrificial lamb as resources are fought over in Vince Cables department.

For me personally the Browne proposals must act as a catalyst for change, not merely the re-organisation of finance. I entered Parliament in 1997 and my first task as HE spokesperson was to fight the Blunkett proposals to introduce tuition fees following the Dearing Report. I have been fighting on the same ground ever since – writing the manifesto pledges of 2001 and 2005 – because as Vince said to a packed House of Commons last week I benefitted from a ‘free’ higher education. In 2010 I still believe as a nation we should invest in education, in research and in our people.

The greatest temptation and the greatest mistake we as Liberal Democrats could now make is niot to recognise that the landscape has changed and must continue to change. The fiscal deficit left by Labour is an important element but so is the need to convince sceptical young people and their parents that life-long learning be it in work, college or university is not only an investment in themselves and their families it is an investment in our nation.

Lord Willis of Knaresborough
Liberal Democrat Shadow Spokes person of HE 1997-1999 and Shadow Education Spokesperson 1999-2005.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • The IFS report does not show that the Browne proposals are progressive, all it shows is that under some circumstances those on higher incomes will pay more over the payment period than those on low incomes. As every GCSE economics student knows, a progressive tax is one in which the percentage of tax increases with the tax base, in this case income. The Browne recommendations are very regressive (in the accepted definition of regressive/proportional/progressive taxation) and it does you no favours to repeat their propaganda.

    How can you complain about Labour’s economic incompetence when you aren’t even up to GCSE standard? The Conservatives are in favour of the Browne recommendations precisely because they are regressive and keep the rich rich, rather than giving the ability to earn wealth to those who contribute most to society.

  • I enjoyed reading this – I think for many who work in higher education it has been clear for some time that the landscape had changed, and that a return to funding HE purely out of taxation would be very difficult to achieve, if it was achievable at all. Of course, political discourse for a long time has purely focused on students, without (paradoxically) looking at universities, as if students’ welbeing could be ensured without making sure that they would be taught in institutions still able to function properly. We need to have a very thorough debate about higher education, or, even better, a debate about post-16 vocational education, further education, higher education and life-long learning in the round.

    In the meantime our main worry should not necessarily be Browne’s review, but the fact that at the same time as procuring more funding through student contributions, the government is taking 80% out of its university funding – thereby ensuring that students will have to pay more, while universities will have to continue in the same cash-strapped manner that has already become a serious problem in the last few years. This looks like a recipe for disaster.

    It is particularly worrying that over the whole debate about the ‘tuition fees U-turn’ people seem to have overlooked almost entirely that both students and universities are going to be left between a rock and a hard place, namely the Browne proposals and the spending cuts.

  • Ah so now I understand…. what I voted for when I saw all the stuff about tuition fee pledges was just Liberal party ‘aspirations’ , not an attempt at a new style of politics where politicians stood by what they promised and pledged… silly, silly me…

    the more articles I read like this with its post-event justification the more mad I am getting…..

    either a. You didn’t realise what pledging to abolish tution fees was going to cost (even though you knew the figures) which makes you economically incompetent or

    b. You have decided that you know best and the voters just don’t matter.

  • Terry Gilbert 19th Oct '10 - 2:11pm

    You too, Phil? It’s disappointing to see people who gave a written Pledge to the electorate just a few months ago just rolling over and not even bothering to defend party policy.

  • Anthony Aloysius St 19th Oct '10 - 2:16pm

    “The Browne recommendations are very regressive (in the accepted definition of regressive/proportional/progressive taxation) and it does you no favours to repeat their propaganda.”

    The point about higher earners is fair enough (and it is odd that the IFS seems to view any tax that increases even slightly with income as “progressive,” even when it decreases as a _percentage_ of income; we saw a similar argument in its analysis of VAT).

    But the recommendations _are_ progressive for those on lower incomes, to the extent that people earning less than about 80% of the median salary will repay nothing at all.

    (Of course, I do agree with the majority of Lib Dem members that as nearly all the party’s MPs gave a written promise to vote against any increase in fees, the only honourable course is to keep that promise.)

  • Liberal neil 19th Oct '10 - 2:19pm

    @Andy – Steve is right on this point.

    ‘Progressive’, when applied to taxation, means that as income rises the proportion of it that you pay in tax rises.

    What the IFS report shows is that the actual amount that higher earners pay is higher, but does not analyse that amount as a proportion of their income.

    Under the Browne proposals a graduate with average earnings of £30K pa will pay back a much larger proportion of their earnings than a graduate on £60K pa, therefore it is not ‘progressive’ in the usual meaning of the term.

  • Whether or not the Browne report is progressive or not is a mute point in my opinion, the fact still remains is that the cost of HE for the student/graduate is increasing across the board thereby (rightly or wrongly) discouraging some sections of society from attending university in the first place

  • Richard Morris 19th Oct '10 - 3:28pm

    In fact the Browne proposals will be pretty regressive for all sorts of groups – women, ethnic minorities, the disabled – I’ve written about why at And I’m sorry Phil but no amount of ‘I wish I’d said all this before I endorsed the manifesto’ is going to change that.

  • Phil, you, along with Vince and Nick, have long opposed the party policy, and have frequently lost votes. Whilst it is great to see Liberal Democrats living by Mill’s principle of constantly challenging our closely held assumptions, it is so difficult to accept this is genuine, noble change.

    If education truly is an investment for the nation, then the nation should pay for it, through capital gains or whatever other methods we deem appropriate.

    On average graduate benefit personally because of their education, but you cannot – on a case by case basis – hypothecate this benefit, and hypothecate it directly to their degree. Thus, you risk charging someone for something they owe nothing for.

    I am sure you see the concerns, which are often as much political as directly policy related.

  • @Fran: No. To the surprise of many, including me, all the evidence showed that the introduction of fees has had not had the effect of dissuading those from poorer backgrounds to go to university.

  • You would say and do anything for power ,you signed a pledge and should stand buy your words,next you will be telling us why Trident is so important to keep and how its Labours fault you need to keep it ,you are a mug m8 ,and you have sold your liberal values down the drain, explain why you attacked disabled people first ,women ,families the most vulnerable people in our society, VAT posters ,when Nick promised tax stealing would stop.They looked scared on dispatches last night hiding enough cash to stop all cuts
    andy edinburgh

  • Patrick Smith 19th Oct '10 - 6:20pm

    The litany of positive L/D led `Coalition Governmnet’ achievements,already include the abolition of ID Cards,ending keeping of child data d/b and Contact- point,the abolition of the child detention centre at Yarlswood,the triple lock on Pensions,and the saving of two aircraft carriers : but with the threat of loss of the Ark Royal.

    But what is likely to happen in the future lives of the least off students, over the next decade? Will their lives be blighted?

    If the Browne proposal has its way and is seen to double the existing `Tuition Fees’, even given pay-back is limited to over £21K earnings and if lower pay graduates do not pay anything, it may still result in a set of unintended consequences on student aspiration.

    This Browne plan is not exactly a stimulus in motivation to the next generation of students emergent from the hard pressed least off British families, who do not have the added family assist of book lined living rooms and professional parenting.

    The likely inheritance of half a working life of a mill-stone of student debt is still potentially presented at the moment aka Browne, as a potential stigma in later life,unless further concessions to the worst off .

    Browne may yet be allowed to prevent and stymie the best hopes of the next generation of high achievers : for the many thousands of aspiring least off youngsters striving for self improvement and opportunity to break free from the bonds of poverty of birthright.

    There is still time to give students` help.

  • @Andy
    I think the IFS are deliberately misleading people who don’t have a GCSE in economics using the old-fashioned method of lying.

    I did some calculations based on a 30k loan for different salaries. Salaries are shown below together with the percentage of gross salary paid servicing the loan over the 30 year period. I have assumed a 21k threshold for payment that increases by 3% per annum, wages rising at 3% per annum and 5% interest on the loan.

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

    For this example, the Browne proposals are progressive up to a 28k salary. Beyond 28k they are regressive.

  • It gets worse.

    SO you were for a rise in fees but you signed a pledge prior to the election to vote against fees this parliament, with no intention of keeping that promise. You just wanted the votes.

    Even worse than Clegg, this is a despicable attack on democracy.

  • I don’t think that the IFS are deliberately misleading anyone. In general raising fees will be progressive, since graduates are on average significantly richer than non-grads. Ergo, raising fees would in most circumstances be progressive. In this case, given that Browne creates a system in which the lowest earning third of grads will pay less than at present, and every other grad pay more, the change is progressive on all the standard definitions. That is not to say that we can’t find examples to the contrary, but that is true of almost any big change.

    Declarations of interest: I teach in a univ, and am an IFS member!

  • @tim leunig
    Thanks for the comments, but am I hearing a Reader at the LSE, or a member of the Lib Dems, speaking?

    Figure 1 in the IFS report shows the total repayments made for different income groups for three different discount rates. It does not show the repayments as a percentage of the income, which is the standard definition of ‘progressive’ that I was taught at school a long time ago and that appears on several different sources when I type it into google.

    “In general raising fees will be progressive, since graduates are on average significantly richer than non-grads.”

    The IFS report does not make a comparison between graduates and non-graduates, just simply the amount paid by different income groups for the same loan. I was comparing like with like and stating that the definition of progressive is wrong for the data as described. I stand by that. You have changed the description of what is being described.

    “In this case, given that Browne creates a system in which the lowest earning third of grads will pay less than at present, and every other grad pay more, the change is progressive on all the standard definitions. ”

    Again you have changed the description. The term was used in the IFS report to discuss the ability of different income groups to pay a specific loan. I have pointed out, correctly, that their definition of progressive in this particular circumstance is incorrect.

    P.S, I got those figures above slightly wrong. Here’s a corrected graph for the 30k loan:

    It is regressive above ~36k salary. For a 15k loan it is regressive above~28k salary.

  • FE has always been the poor relation in educational politics. It lacks the prestige of HE and does not have the numerical clout of the schools sector. Yet, even if the ludicrous and arbitrary target of 50% of young people attending university were achieved, this would leave half of young people with relatively little opportunity to pursue vocational qualifications and a worthwhile career. Britain has some of the finest universities in the world, and in this regard Germany is distinctly in the second division, but it is the depth and breadth of technological industries which has seen Germany come through the recession relatively unscathed. It’s strength is it commitment to vocational education for the many, not the few. Rather than fretting about the universities and the impact of the Browne review on potential university students, Liberal Democrats should turn their attention to the 50% of the population for whom university study will never be the right course of action.

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