Simon Hughes writes… Why I’ve taken up a government post

There are many good and legitimate arguments to be had about tuition fees and whether they are the best way to fund our higher education system. These include the big concerns about intergenerational inequality, and whether the market system is the best way to drive forward excellence in our higher education institutions. Liberal Democrats have long opposed tuition fees for these and other reasons, including of course the additional concern that fees are a barrier to access into higher education.

But the one criticism that cannot be levelled at the government’s proposals is that it will make university unaffordable for future students. The system of financing for the teaching of higher education which is proposed by the government will be free for everyone during their studies. Payment will only be made after a graduate has finished their studies and only if they can afford to pay once they have a decent income. If they cannot afford it, the government picks up the bill. In the future, the income level which graduates have to cross before they are required to make a contribution will for the first time be increased in line with earnings so that graduates will no be dragged into repayments at lower earnings. And of course the government rejected Lord Browne’s proposals for no upper limit on fees, and fixed both the regular future limit, and an exceptional one for exceptional cases, with additional conditions imposed.

This is materially different from the tuition fees regime introduced by Labour. Labour’s system brought in fees which had to be paid by the student up front before they could go to university, which did put in place a real financial barrier to higher education. Labour’s second fees scheme, top-up fees, was an improvement because it provided for extra loans to pay the higher fees, but still excluded part-time students who make up nearly one in three of the undergraduate student body. And Labour’s fees system, which started repayments at an income level of £15,000, also never took account of inflation – meaning that graduates on lower incomes paid an ever higher proportion of their monthly income in student loans.

Of course it is not true to say that fees no longer present any issues affecting access to higher education. There is definitely still a belief or a feeling amongst many that fear of debt will put off many young people from applying to university. A quick scan of blogs and newspaper quotes as well as some of the comments or correspondence I have received as an MP reveals that some and possibly many people including parents and future students mistakenly believe that families will have to pay university fees for the children, which they cannot or may not be able to afford now to do.

This is why it is now more important than ever to make sure that young people and all other students are fully equipped with all the facts, and no fiction, about the costs, payment methods and advantages of higher education so that they are not put off from applying to university from fear of it being unaffordable. My own personal experience of conversations in recent weeks with teenagers in my ethnically diverse inner-city constituency and elsewhere showed that once young people were fully informed about the repayment plans they were much less worried that the new regime would still discourage people like them from applying to university. This is one of the encouraging reasons why I felt able and willing to take up the challenge of being the national advocate in England for access to higher education. But why I also do not underestimate the urgency and importance of the task.

This job is not helped by the vast amount of careless or intentional misinformation circulated about the government’s plans, including from many people in the Labour party who voted to introduce fees in the first place and did not take any of the steps which this government has announced to remove financial barriers created by fees. Their hypocrisy is illogical and, worse, irresponsible – all the more so as the system proposed by the government is closer to the graduate tax that Ed Miliband says he now supports than anything his government achieved in 13 years in power.

But access to post 16 education is about more than making sure people are fully informed about the financial consequences of going to college or university. As well as this role, I will make recommendations to government for breaking down other barriers to further and higher education – and there are many.

The former Labour higher education minister David Lammy MP made clear just a few weeks ago that some of our best universities have a dreadful record on access for bright and talented students from local authority comprehensive schools and non-traditional backgrounds, this despite the legacy of free or heavily subsidised education. Serious action needs to be taken in this country to deal with the fact that private universities like Harvard or Yale in the United States which charge fees many times higher than the maximum level proposed for English universities manage to do much better in recruiting students and staffroom poor and disadvantaged backgrounds and minority communities than Oxford and Cambridge. Scholarships which pay for tuition fees need to be effectively targeted. As this government has already shown it understands by already announcing an increase in the maintenance loan, better systems are needed to prevent students racking up commercial debts to pay for their living costs. And those going into further education colleges need to be assured in advance that the inescapable costs of travel, equipment or a midday meal can be met.

I am clear that this government can and must succeed in creating further and higher education systems, and apprenticeships and training, where every person of talent and ability will know that they have the opportunity to have the best education or training available. If we do this we will have taken significant steps towards building the society aspired to by every Liberal Democrat, which is enshrined as a goal in our constitution and printed on our every membership card: “a fair, free and open society, in which we seek to balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community and in which no-one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity.”

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16 Comments

  • My very real concern is that the student loan book, once the initial furore is over, will be sold off to the private sector.

    Whoever took the book over would then adopt Faginesque methods to squeeze every penny of profit from the scheme. If evidence is needed, we have only to read of the many harrowing stories of harsh and unfair treatment, when Banks sell off their debts to 3rd Party assignees.

    Think of owing your Mum a tenner – your Mum then sells the debt to the tattooed shaven headed man at the end of the street with an ASBO. OK, so you still only owe £10, but has your situation changed ?

  • Further to my comment at 12.04pm, I have read the attached article from the LINC student’s magazine. It is self explanatory and endorses, if not the real then the perceptual concern, that the student loan book will be sold off to the private sector :

    ‘So what happens if the government does manage to sell off the Student Loan Book? Well, the government has pledged that students will be no worse off. That they will not pay a higher rate of interest and the change will be transparent.

    That’s not as comforting as they may think. XXXXX XXXXX 21, a 3rd year University of Lincoln student, said: “From what I know it’s an awful idea. I fear that the interest rates will go up and the government hasn’t considered the long term effects of this policy.” She added that she knew people who had been put off from attending university over this issue.

    My own opinion of the current government’s record on keeping promises is not high. I’m not confident that they’d protect the student debtors from a predatory new owner of the Student Loan Book. Nor protect students from harassment based methods of “encouraging” early repayment of loans.

    One final thought. If the government does succeed in selling off the Student Loan Book will that mean there is less money coming into government to fund the next generation of students requiring loans?’

  • The coalition are planning to sell off our forests, so I don’t see they’d have any concerns about selling off a financial service like the loan book.

    These things are done gradually, despite ‘slippery slope’ reasoning explained at the time.

    Thatcher was selling off national assets, but dismissed the suggestion that it would lead to selling off public spaces like our forests. Even she drew the line at that.

    But – here we are, and the legislation is being prepared to sell-off vast areas of forest and dispense with the Forestry Commission.

  • ‘So what happens if the government does manage to sell off the Student Loan Book ? Well, the government has PLEDGED that students will be no worse off’.

    Politicians – pledges ………… now where have we heard that before ?

  • The money has to come from somewhere, all this talk of people not paying back their loans until they earn a certain amount misses out the fact that universities need funding and these increased fees are to replace money that is being cut, if the sums don’t add up, the money at some point will have to be raised somehow.

    Simon go around to a few colleges and universities and speak to the staff on the ground about these changes, I doubt you’ll find them rubbing their hands with glee, these are the people who deal directly with these policy changes.

  • Serious action needs to be taken in this country to deal with the fact that private universities like Harvard or Yale in the United States which charge fees many times higher than the maximum level proposed for English universities manage to do much better in recruiting students and staffroom poor and disadvantaged backgrounds and minority communities than Oxford and Cambridge.

    So, you’re saying the more universities can charge, the more fairer they become?

    Everytime the Conservatives get into power, they make step changes towards the same USA right wing ideology. An ideology which has created huge problems in USA. It’s happening with the NHS, our schools, our universities.

  • Richard SM – Cadbury was sold off to Kraft on promises of no factory closures, no job losses etc, etc. Ethics only exist when they do not stand in the way of making a profit.

    As for the Government controlling the avaricious intent of a student loan book assignee – well what is their track record ? The Government own the majority of RBS and Lloyds/HBOS and Northern Rock is nationalised, and yet they are unable or unwilling to prevent bankers filling their pockets with multi million pound bonuses earned on the back of taxpayers money. If the student loan book was sold off, and problems emerged, the Government would be as impotent as they have been on bankers’ bonuses. Can we believe otherwise ?

  • Leviticus18_23 9th Jan '11 - 1:34pm

    Did you pledge to oppose fees or increases in fees?

    Did you vote against an increase in fees?

    Have you now taken a job where you attempt to make the unpalatable taste delightful to the students you deceived?

    Really, how do you expect people to trust you?

    ‘Quisling’ you say…?

  • Leviticus18_23
    Posted 9th January 2011 at 1:34 pm | Permalink
    Did you pledge to oppose fees or increases in fees? – YUP

    Did you vote against an increase in fees? – YUP

    Have you now taken a job where you attempt to make the unpalatable taste delightful to the students you deceived? – YUP

    Really, how do you expect people to trust you? – I DONT

    ‘Quisling’ you say…? – I PREFER TO BE ON THE INSIDE LOOKING OUT

  • Simon McGrath 9th Jan '11 - 2:55pm

    Glad to see you haven’t repeated what you said to the Guardian about barring people from university because their parents sent them to private schools.

  • If we do this we will have taken significant steps towards building the society aspired to by every Liberal Democrat, which is enshrined as a goal in our constitution and printed on our every membership card: “a fair, free and open society, in which we seek to balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community and in which no-one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity.”

    I think you can rip that up now. The coalition is throwing many into poverty. ignorance and conformity. Well done.

  • Simon writes that “The former Labour higher education minister David Lammy MP made clear just a few weeks ago that some of our best universities have a dreadful record on access for bright and talented students from local authority comprehensive schools and non-traditional backgrounds, this despite the legacy of free or heavily subsidised education.”. I don’t think it is that simple – it has widely been reported that 3 in 4 of the A*s awarded at A level went to private school kids. In that context the fact that top univs let in lots of students from private schools shows not that they have a dreadful record on access, but that so many state schools have a dreadful record of generating students with really good A level grades (by which I mean, say, 4As at A level, and 10+As at GCSE, a majority at A*).

    (For the record I was state educated.)

  • John Fraser 9th Jan '11 - 9:09pm

    Should a Senior lib dem really be acting as a saleman for increasing young peoples debt ? there seems to still be this pretense that this is a great policy if only people would listen mentallity.

    If the policy was so great why did Simon abstain and nearly vote against . Its such a shame to see a talented politician yo yoing back and forth in this way .

  • daft ha'p'orth 9th Jan '11 - 9:42pm

    “But the one criticism that cannot be levelled at the government’s proposals is that it will make university unaffordable for future students. The system of financing for the teaching of higher education which is proposed by the government will be free for everyone during their studies.”

    Everyone???

    Why don’t you look up the term ‘ELQ’ and find out just how wrong you are?

  • Matthew Huntbach 10th Jan '11 - 12:48am


    If the policy was so great why did Simon abstain and nearly vote against . Its such a shame to see a talented politician yo yoing back and forth in this way

    It isn’t great, but it’s what we have. That’s how democracy works, you have to make the best of what we have even if it isn’t what you personally would regard as best. The argument that Simon Hughes should have no involvement with this seems to be essentially that if there’s any aspect of the government you disagree with, you shold have no involvement with government at all.

    This is very, very silly. I strongly disagree with the current tuition fees policy, but that doesn’t mesan schools, students and universities should be denied advice from people who care on the best way to make use of it. I’d be very happy to give adbvice to state schools on how to get more kids into good university places.

    Here’s two starting points:

    1) Throw away the computers.

    2) Scrap any A-level or other qualification which is essentially a memory test.

    3) Strongly encourage everyone who is capable of it to do A-level Maths. For many university subjects, A-level Maths is an essental requirement, or the only reason it is not is because they wouldn’t fill their places if they made it so. One of the main reasons state school students don’t get into good university places is this message does not seem to have got through to them, so they give up Maths at GCSE level and no-one tells them that by doing so they have instantly cut off half their possible university places.

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