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This House Has No Confidence in the Government's Higher Education Policy

Posted: 08/05/2012 17:18

Robert Wilson writes in favour of the motion.

This government's higher education policy can barely be said to be anything more than foolhardy. It is fiscally peculiar, damaging to equality and frankly Kafkaesque. For a society who has such major aspirations in the field of education and equality, our government's policy maps fairly badly. This is perhaps why, in October 2010, YouGov recorded an 11% drop in approval following the government's declaration of the fee rises; this constitutes a fairly clear sign from the rest of the UK that, as far as higher education policy is concerned, confidence is pretty sparse.

We, as a society, have acknowledged for quite some time now that we regard university education as a betterment of the self. It provides us with skills and abilities as well as, crucially, the capacity to think critically and handle evidence. Statistics from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) demonstrate that graduates are payed, on average, 40% more than a comparable non-graduate. In the Armed Forces, graduate personnel are paid up to £10,000 more than non-graduates of the same rank. Innumerable positions with premium employers from the Civil Service to Barclays are only open to those with a degree from an established institution. Even if we confine the benefits of obtaining a degree purely to the economic and material, and completely ignore their social or personal worth, we see that they are key to an individual's success. So why do they fail to represent aspects of our society?

The median wage in the UK, according to the Office for National Statistics Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings (ASHE), is £20,000 - pre-tax. Let's assume that a family has two average-earners and two children (ONS), who both go to university, although not concurrently. Assuming the minimum necessary accommodation-per-year, £3,265, and adding a standing order of £250 per month (£1750 for 7 months) and then the now standard £9,000 fees, we are approaching £15,000 each for a university education per year. Even before considering the options of loan, which many families who have never been to university will not be prepared to do, parents are asked to spend around 1/3rd of their household income per child. Perhaps even more poignantly, single parents, now a 1/4th of the population, around 3/4ths. Only a government who are severely out of touch with what constitutes normal fiscal concerns could create such a discouraging policy.

In the face of the data which demonstrates the productiveness of an inclusive and trusting system, we as a nation shift ever closer to the privatised model of education which has antagonised massive inequality in the US. Such a system seems out of place in a country like the UK, in which we are seeing increasing pressure on institutions to widen their intake to accurately reflect our society. The picture that emerges is of a government who are casting out policy left and right without allowing for any coherent strategy. It seems that, again, we can have no faith in their policy.


Joel Moss opposes the motion.

Many of those who claim they care the most about access seem to be doing their best to hinder it by misrepresenting the government's higher education reforms. As under the current system, no fees have to be paid up front and repayments only have to be made when their earnings are above a certain threshold. The main changes brought in by the government's reforms are an increase in this threshold, an increase in tuition fees and an increase in tuition fee interest.

The increase in the repayment threshold to £21,000 means students can obtain a comfortable standard of living before any fees need be repaid. Monthly repayments are then proportional to the student's income above this amount, ensuring repayments are proportional to a student's ability to pay. This both prevents graduates being forced into poverty by loan repayments and stops them being put off lower paid, but socially valuable, careers.

In many ways, the increase of tuition fees to (in most cases) £9,000 is oddly one of the most progressive parts of the government's policy. Any outstanding debt is written off after thirty years meaning many low-to-middle earners will never have to pay back the full amount of their student loan whilst the higher earners, with the means to pay, will. Those who benefit the most from higher education will therefore have to make the greatest contribution towards it.

The fee increase is also a shift of the costs of higher education from the state to the individual. As the individual is the main beneficiary of their university education, this is completely reasonable.

It is also a just move, as higher education tends to be mostly taken up by the haves rather than the have-nots. Of course, there is the reservation that by raising fees you may just enforce this pre-existing inequality. This can be addressed by targeted programs such as the government's National Scholarship Fund which pays the third year tuition fees of students from low-income families. Universities charging more than £6,000 also have to provide a scholarship covering the first year fees to these students. Schemes like these help solely those who need it rather than using the sledgehammer of general funding as a solution.

Increasing the interest on loans for those who can afford it is also essential. The currently very low level of interest on student loans allows those who could afford to pay up front to profiteer, by taking out loans and placing the saved money in a high interest savings account. This is a ridiculous state of affairs, especially considering that it occurs at the government's expense, as the loans are provided below cost.

Therefore, it seems that despite their flaws, the government's reforms are a progressive step ensuring that those who benefit the most from higher education will, ultimately, give the most back.

 

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