The Independent View: Liberal Democrats should back Browne

The Vice Chancellor of Sheffield Hallam University writes…

I am opposed to what are commonly called ‘top up’ fees in higher education and would resist any move to impose upfront fees for higher education. But, this is not what the Browne recommendations propose.

The weekend before Browne reported I was in despair and angry. It was becoming increasingly apparent that the Coalition government was going to impose a 75-80% cut on the teaching budget for higher education and expect the shortfall to be recovered through an increase in fees.

I am the Vice-Chancellor of a large metropolitan university, with just under 35,000 students. Our catchment area covers a large area in the North, but we recruit a significant majority of our students from the broader Sheffield City region. We are not part of the research elite. Many of our students have working class backgrounds; they are often the first of their families to go to university.

I do not support the government’s approach to cutting the deficit. I think they are moving too quickly and they have ambitious plans for restructuring the state, with no real plans in place for how to do it. This big shift in funding for Higher Education seemed to be all of a piece. I was appalled.

On the morning of the 9th at 7.15, I sat down to read Browne.

By 8.00 I’d begun to relax. This was going to be O.K.

So, why the change of heart? Why wasn’t I worried that students in the future wouldn’t be put off by talk of fees at £6-7,000? Why wasn’t our university facing financial ruin?

Browne isn’t proposing an increase in upfront fees or ‘top up’ fees. The government ‘lends’ students the money. It also provides them with a maintenance grant. The loan creates a ‘debt’, but this isn’t like credit card debt or a mortgage. The debt is only payable once you are in work and earning.

Why all this talk of fees then? Because there has to be a charge made for teaching. Browne doesn’t call this a fee. The report introduces the concept of a Student Finance package. This has a number of components. The first is Student Finance Learning; the second is Student Finance Living. The report in effect abolishes fees and introduces a charge for learning. This may vary. Those that wish to charge more will have to make their case to the new Higher Education Council and a charge will be made to cover the state’s cost in providing the funding.

Higher education remains free at the point of admissions. There is an improved maintenance package. Higher education remains free if you never earn more than £21,000 or its equivalent. If you earn £25,000, it will cost you £7 per week; the cost of two pints of beer. It’s true that if you earn significantly more then you will pay significantly more.

Won’t this create a market in higher education and isn’t a market bad? There is already a market in higher education, but the currency is A Level points. This reinforces that market but in a significant way. It reinforces the connection between the student and the university. I would however be concerned if fee levels for elite institutions rose significantly above the rest. There needs to be a connection with the cost of provision and there is no reason why elite universities shouldn’t be required to cut the costs of their provision; just as the rest of the sector has for years!

I would be very surprised if students were put off by this package. They will be put off by talk of fees at £6,000-£10,000. But the report is very clear; there are no upfront fees. Prospective students understand that. I think improvements can be made in the current package. I would call it a ‘modified graduate tax’, or a ‘graduate contribution scheme’. I would also put a cap on fees. High fees at the top end will put off students throughout the system.

I am concerned about the radical shift in the role of the state, which will lose its capacity to shape the system and manage rapid shifts in income flow. The new framework could be stimulating but it could also be destabilising. In the student interest, the transition needs to be managed carefully.

There are many progressive elements in Browne. Liberal Democrats should think carefully about their commitment to the NUS pledge. The pledge was based on a false prospectus. It used the language of fees and called for opposition to an increase in upfront fees. Browne does not propose this. It proposes something completely different, a radical reconstruction of funding for Higher Education, one that puts considerable power in the hands of the student!

Professor Phil Jones is Vice Chancellor, Sheffield Hallam University

The Independent View‘ is a slot on Lib Dem Voice which allows those from beyond the party to contribute to debates we believe are of interest to LDV’s readers. Please email [email protected] if you are interested in contributing.

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  • Ben Johnson 1st Nov '10 - 2:58pm

    I agree that the Browne proposals are more akin to a graduate tax than tuition fees.

    I have heard that the threshold for paying fees may even rise to £25,000. A threshold of £21000 or above would mean that fees are de facto abolished for low income graduates.

  • I’m sorry Philip Jones, but from beginning to end your article is pure sophistry. An attempt make palatable the gross injustice of saddling graduates with huge debts. Factors such as whether or not the debts will actually be paid in full and the rate of repayment are irrelevant – the fact remains that graduates will be psychologically burdened with huge debts simply because they have the ability and aptitude to pursue an academic calling. This is fundamentally wrong.

    The graduates for whom I feel most sorry are those from middle-income families who will have to pay the fees in full despite the fact that their parents do not have sufficient income to cover the cost of the fees. If they leave university and enter employment at around the not untypical £23,000 mark then they will be hit by escalating repayments for most of their working lives and just at a time when they need all their cash for housing etc. Furthermore, despite their repayments the amount they owe will actually increase due to the significant interest rates.

    Since it is the student who has to repay the fees AFTER graduation at a rate determined by HIS/HER income where is the logic in waiving the fees for students whose PARENTS have a low income BEFORE graduation? This is a complete nonsense and a gross injustice, as is the entire Browne report.

    As a Liberal Democrat voter in a marginal West Country seat I will be disgusted if the Liberal Democrats in government follow the advice of Philip Jones. No, if the party wishes to retain my vote then Liberal Democrats should NOT back Browne.

  • Anthony Aloysius St 1st Nov '10 - 3:58pm

    “Factors such as whether or not the debts will actually be paid in full and the rate of repayment are irrelevant – the fact remains that graduates will be psychologically burdened with huge debts …”

    Now that’s what I call sophistry!

  • Colin Green 1st Nov '10 - 4:26pm

    If you accept that students should pay towards their university education, then payment as a percentage of an income above a reasonable threshold, with a few previsos, is the best way to do it. Ending payments when the “debt” is repaid stops the payments from being open ended. Maintaining a decent threshold stops those on low incomes from being burdened by repayments. Maintaining some sort of cap on the fees stops the levels from discouraging some students from taking up university education. I’m quite willing to believe that the coalition’s final proposal will be the best and fairest way of students paying for their education. I still believe that party policy is correct and that undergraduate tution should be paid for out of general taxation. In this respect it hardly matters how good the response to the Browne report is. It will still involve students paying.

  • George W. Potter 1st Nov '10 - 4:47pm

    Browne is an improvement on the current system – but we would be absurd to support it because of the pledge. Let’s face it, Browne will be implemented no matter how our MPs vote so they should keep their principles and integrity and vote against it.

  • A prediction: if the Russell Group don’t get their uncapped fees demand met, they’ll go private by the start of the next parliament.

  • Anthony Aloysius St 1st Nov '10 - 5:59pm

    “Let’s face it, Browne will be implemented no matter how our MPs vote so they should keep their principles and integrity and vote against it.”

    The trouble is that it’s not clear these recommendations would pass the Commons if the Lib Dems voted against them. That’s why it’s so difficult.

  • Philip Jones says, “If you earn £25,000, it will cost you £7 per week; the cost of two pints of beer. ”

    I don’t know where he got this figure from. A £30,000 loan over 10 years would cost about £60 per week in capital repayment. Perhaps he meant just the interest on this capital.

    Imagine if you bought a house and your bank manager said to you ‘don’t worry you don’t have to pay for the house you just have to pay off the mortgage’!

    The fact is that by raising student fees, students are having to pay more. It is just a delay in the payment. A bit like those ads which say ‘buy now, pay later’. Well you do PAY later. Three years goes by very quickly and students will soon find they have finished their degrees and are now having to pay a great price for them. There is no getting away from the fact that students are paying more.

  • “Higher education remains free at the point of admissions. There is an improved maintenance package. Higher education remains free if you never earn more than £21,000 or its equivalent.”

    This is very unlikely to be the case. The maximum living loan Browne enivsages is £3750. Several of the accomodation blocks at your University cost more than that just for term time rents. Students will therefore need to borrow or earn to cover all their other living costs. Those loans will come at commercial rates with demands for fairly rapid payment.

  • Anthony Aloysius St 1st Nov '10 - 6:48pm

    Mike C

    “I don’t know where he got this figure from.”

    From the Browne report, strangely enough. The suggested rate of repayment is 9% of the amount by which your income exceeds £21,000.

  • Patrick Smith 1st Nov '10 - 7:28pm

    I do agree with some elements of Phillip Jone`s thesis but basically an apprenceship in debt building skills is not OK for the next generation of British students and our elite academics should not be so sanquine about its consequences on young lives.

    Prof. Jones advocates a `cap’ and this has to be imposed to stop the Russell Group Universities putting up Fees indiscriminately, as without a `cap’ there is no safety net and a potenial `glass ceiling to talented working class students going to Oxbridge and Imperial College London and so on.

    Does the VC consider whether British Universities like Sheffiield Hallam are providing its 35,000 students with courses leading to Degrees etc. that are matching demand for vocational trained graduates in jobs in the British Economy?

    What comments are credible vis a vis 19% of British Graduates not finding work and are having to sign up for free interns including trained lawyers etc.?

    Also if the UK is to retain its competitve business edge and transfer of modern language skills in the EU market what quota of Modern Linguists and Scientists, including Chemists and Physics Grads. are required?

    Surely, influential Vice Chancellors like Prof.Jones should be lobbying for greater financial help for aspirational students in these fields?

  • Mark Inskip 1st Nov '10 - 9:08pm

    If you are a university vice-chancellor on £216,000 a year then you’d be able to afford to pay you off your loan in just over a year, most will earn far far less, pay back for many years (fair?) and probably won’t be drinking beer at £3.50 a pint.

  • @mpg: It was reported by the Telegraph on Saturday that the cap will be set at £9,000 due to pressure from some universities (I’m guessing in the Russell Group) as long as they are offering a “public benefit”:

    “The Coalition had been expected to cap fees at the lower level of £7,000, but it is understood that several universities threatened to go private, and charge far higher fees, if ministers pushed ahead with the lower cap.”

    As I recall, the leaks in the Telegraph on the Browne Review were fairly accurate, so this may well be what is announced in the near future. If it is true, then perhaps £9,000 is high enough for the Russell Group unis for the moment.

    @Anthony Aloysius St: If you do the maths, I’m not sure that Lib Dem backbenchers could stop the proposals to raise tuition fees even if they all kept their pledge and every single one of them voted against.

    Working assumptions:

    -All Conservative MPs vote for
    -All Lib Dem Cabinet ministers and Whips vote for
    -No Lib Dem ministers or PPSes resign and all abstain
    -All Lib Dem backbenchers vote against
    -All non-Coalition MPs (minus Sinn Fein and SNP, who don’t vote on non-Scottish matters) vote against
    -I don’t know how the Independents will vote, so I didn’t include them

    Voting for:

    305 Conservatives
    8 Liberal Democrats (Cabinet ministers and Whips)

    TOTAL: 313

    Voting against:

    254 Labour
    34 Liberal Democrats (all backbenchers)
    8 DUP
    3 Plaid Cymru
    3 SDLP
    1 Alliance
    1 Green

    TOTAL: 304


    15 Liberal Democrats (ministers who are not in Cabinet and PPSes)

  • I’m not convinced all Labour MPs will vote against, many of them are proud of the introduction of tuition fees and believe that increased top up fees are necessary.

    Of course the hysterical ones like Harman will change her tune and scream from the opposite benches before voting against, but the architects of fees include Alan Johnson and his ministerial team from his time at Education.

    Expect a lot of amendments, but Browne, in an amended form, will pass comfortably.

  • @Mike: I agree that some Labour MPs will vote for the (somewhat modified) Browne proposals that will be put forward, what I was trying to show was that even if they all voted against it and all the Lib Dem backbenchers joined them in voting against it, the legislation would still get through.

  • Anthony Aloysius St 2nd Nov '10 - 8:12pm

    “@Anthony Aloysius St: If you do the maths, I’m not sure that Lib Dem backbenchers could stop the proposals to raise tuition fees even if they all kept their pledge and every single one of them voted against.”

    The comment I was responding to was “Browne will be implemented no matter how our MPs vote”. Clearly that’s not the case. Obviously you can construct scenarios in which it would pass, and scenarios in which it would be defeated.

  • One of the links in one of William Cullerne Bown’s posts is to an article by Stefan Collini in the London Review of Books on the Browne Review; it’s well worth reading:

  • Well at least one of my assumptions was wrong; Jenny Willott, PPS to Chris Huhne, has said that she will vote against any rise, so she will either have to resign or be sacked:

  • An attempt make palatable the gross injustice of saddling graduates with huge debts.

    Why would it be so much better to saddle graduates with huge taxes?

    Why is it morally right to give someone money, and then tax him to get the money back; but not right to lend him the money, with a guarentee that he will not have to repay it until he can afford it?

    When LibDems campaign in university constituencies, do they tell students that they are planning a tax on graduates?

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