Sunday, 6 March 2011

Social engineering is good

Ideally I would like to see University tuition fees scrapped, but if we can't have that (and in the current economic climate and with the limits imposed by coalition government, we can't) then the important thing is to ensure that any system we do have is progressive - that it is based on ability to pay, so that bright students aren't prevented from fulfilling their potential because of money concerns.

Liberal Democrats have achieved that, and quite spectacularly too. No-one has to pay up front, and students will only begin to pay when they are earning £21K or more. Monthly payments will be lower than they are today in every case; and any institution intending to charge tuition fees will have to submit detailed plans explaining how they will ensure poorer students do not miss out. This will mean extra scholarships and discounts for those from less-well-off backgrounds. If it wasn't for the unfortunate promises made before the last election, all of this would be seen as a stunning achievement; and it is a stunning achievement.

What makes it stunning? Well, MP for Christchurch and former vice-chairman of the Conservative party Christopher Chope has come out against the coalition proposals, claiming that setting aside university places for the poor is 'social engineering'. Introducing his own alternative bill, he said "I share the concern of a lot of people in universities that the government is trying to increase regulation and interference in order to try and tick some boxes on social engineering and social mobility that is ill-conceived." He said institutions should have the freedom to pick students on merit regardless of their background, while opposing proposals which did precisely that. He seems to be incapable of seeing that turning students away because they can't afford to pay is in fact a form of selection.

You could say that Chope is just one person, and his bill didn't get very far, but in fact he represents a strand of Conservative thinking which is far from uncommon. If the Conservatives were in power on their own, without the moderating influence of the Liberal Democrats, then he and those who think like him would be far more influential than they are now. And if Labour were in power instead - well, it's Labour which introduced tuition fees in the first place in 1998, after promising in their manifesto that they wouldn't, and who increased them in 2004. They're very good at criticising, which is fair enough given that that's the job of an opposition, but they're not so good at putting forward positive alternatives.

Change the world


  1. Hi Michael,

    It's an interesting post and let me say straight away that yes, an unfettered Conservative or Labour government would have made life far worse for students than it's about to become. But there are a number of inaccuracies in what you say.

    First of all, the changes to student finance will actually cost the taxpayer more, rather than less over the current period of the CSR. That was true when Cable and Willetts argued that the average fee would be £7,500 (and closer to £6,000 for "low-cost" subjects such as art). It will be much more expensive if, as if looks will happen, average fees are closer to the maximum £9,000 per year.

    While you're correct in saying that monthly repayments will be lower, the effect to the economy of higher student fees paid back over an (up to) 30 year period will be to divert money away from wealth creating businesses and into the pocket of the universities themselves. It's interesting to note that Exeter, who earlier on in the week announced their intention to charge the full £9,000, did so not because they had to as a way of filling their funding gap, but for appearance's sake. You can read more about this in the article I posted on my own blog here:

    The repayment scheme also makes little sense for mature, part-time students such as myself, who make up nearly 40% of the UK's tertiary education sector. We may very well not live for another 30 years - so again, this has the impact of costing the exchequer more over the medium term than the current system of up front payments for courses by those, like me, who can afford it or a system of grants and fee waivers for those who can't. The only social engineering this will lead to in the part-time sector is the exclusion of the majority of the current OU student population from HE in the UK in future. I'm already starting to look at overseas distance universities for my next courses and many will do the same. Unless something changes then the OU will be under threat as an institution because of the changes as they're currently understood.

    An indication of the problems institutions like the OU face is apparent in their cancellation of ALL social sciences masters from 2012 onwards. These were courses which attracted 2,000 part-time students a year and they are now gone. There's more information on this here:

    Finally, there's the OECD report into tertiary education which was published between the announcement of the conclusions of the Browne review and the raising of the cap on fees to £9,000. They pointed out that even under the current funding arrangements, graduates paid back far more in terms of tax income and social benefit to society over their lifetime than the UK government paid to subsidise their studies in the first place.

    You're right - we do need to encourage everyone with academic talent, regardless of background, to go to university and succeed. Unfortunately, the coalition's plans don't achieve this - nor do they help to address the deficit.

  2. Thanks for your comment on my blog Tim, and your general agreement with its content. I wasn't keen on your criticism of inaccuracies so I have read and re-read my blog and I can't see any inaccuracy.

    You say, for instance, that "the effect to the economy of higher student fees paid back over an (up to) 30 year period will be to divert money away from wealth creating businesses and into the pocket of the universities themselves" as if that's a contradiction of what I wrote, but in fact I never wrote anything about where the funding would come from.

    I do disagree with you on this and other points, but since your comment is longer than the initial blog post I think the comments section would be the wrong place to deal with it. Instead, I'll write a new blog entry and publish it in the next day or two.