Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Nick Robinson on tuition fees

The furious morality play of fees / no fees, tax / no tax takes place in the following circumstances as described by Nick Robinson

Labour introduced tuition fees having come to power saying it had no plans to do so* and after promising in its 2001 manifesto that "We will not introduce top-up fees and have legislated to prevent them".

The minister who pushed fees through the Commons in 2004 was Alan Johnson. He admitted later that Labour was open to the charge that it had broken its manifesto pledge.** Behind the scenes he had fought and won a battle with the then-Chancellor Gordon Brown and his advisor Ed Miliband who wanted to introduce a graduate tax. Mr Johnson advised Labour's new leader "for goodness' sake, don't pursue a graduate tax"*** and has consistently argued that a graduate tax won't work.****

The asterisks are referenced below the article.

He goes on:

However, today the shadow chancellor tells the Times [subscription required] that his leader - by strange coincidence Ed Miliband - is right that "there is a strong case for a graduate tax, which may offer a fairer way of sharing costs between individuals and government."

The Conservatives opposed fees - including David Cameron, who wrote the party's 2005 election manifesto which promised "We will restore real choice in higher education by scrapping fees". He and they now say that choice will come by doubling fees.

The Lib Dems opposed fees, then pledged to oppose any increase in them and now say that that is, in fact, the right thing to do even though, they also say, that it's not what they would have done if the electorate had elected a Lib Dem majority government.

Politics is an extraordinarily opportunistic affair. It likes the familiar tune. It likes sound-bite and it likes fury, some of which, some of the time, signifies next to nothing.

I say next to nothing because while there are pros and cons regarding a graduate tax, no party that I am aware of is offering no increase in costs. I am a Labour supporter but to hear the party crying out against Tory cuts and against tuition fees when it was, to a large extent, the last government that necessitated the cuts and would have to cut now if it were still in power, and who introduced tuition fees in the first place, strikes me as pretty well white noise and none-too-convincing fury. It isn't a fury for something, not even particularly against something. It's stage fury on an uncertain stage.

Labour doesn't offer a socialist programme because it can't without a dramatic change in both the global and the local economy. The socialist models on offer look neither inviting, nor particularly socialist.

If I had to define electable socialism-as-it-is for myself, it would be a tendency, or preference, to favour the unfavoured at the least possible inconvenience to the voting public, which is the voting-public-as-it-is.

So that is where the where-it-is is. Though things may yet change. Everything is as-it-is until it isn't. And, actually, where-it-was, say twenty odd years ago, or even ten years ago, is not where it is now. The Euro looks interesting, in a Chinese sort of way.


ps The graduate tax seems fairer to me: the better off paying for the less well off over the long term. It wouldn't be without difficulties - people losing jobs, people between jobs, people downgrading, people trapped in jobs - but, given the ethos, the principle would work. The trick is to develop the ethos. Slow business, I suspect.


Diane said...

Morning George,
I think I share the gist of your argument. I would add a couple of diverse observations: (1) the focus of political demonstration on student fees rather than, say, health care or some other public sector service suggests a psychological "stand-in" for the serious assault on the very concept of publicly funded services at all (the "cuts" are not about economics but about ideology); and (2)this country has always treated education as if it were to be earned rather than as if it were a 'good' in and of itself. The rationing of education in Britain has always been a method of ensuring class distinctions. And, of course, high fees in a country that does not have an endowment culture simply mean further rationing of access to education at all levels.

The rationing of education is also one of the key reasons for the severely steep gradient between wealth and poverty in the UK. The consequences of this? An under-educated populace directly links to a population profile of poor health and severely poor measures of well-being. The "fees" debate is about much more than the cost of a university education. Welcome to the inchoate student demonstrations...........heh?

George S said...

Both your points 1 and 2 are well made, Diane.

Point 1, though, depends on two things:

a) Ascribing a fixed identity to a particular party (the party of the devil). That may of course be right - Tories may favour cuts - but there is a suggestion here that whatever they do (being the party of the devil) is for the worst of motives, while whatever anyone else does is from better motives. The same action then carried out by one party would be bad, by the other better. The action remains the same. I have never thought in ideologically fixed binary terms. I support Labour because I think they can actually make the actual lives of actual people better, not because the Tories are the devil's party.

2) Assuming that this country never set up the WEA, the Open University, the Open College and various other schemes whereby people might learn, including schemes administered by universities such as the UEA. The decline of these things is not ideologically led except in so far as that whenever there is a financial squeeze they are the first to go. They were (one should add) already going under Labour. It isn't the party of the devil solely.

Not sure that education as such is rationed. Every country has a way of financing its education. In an economy where debt was regarded as a power for good (ie keeping the economy moving) student debt was just another form of generating interest. Now that debt would be simply greater.

The proposed graduate tax is a tax for life (not paying off debts, but paying into the educational kitty for as long as you are earning above a limit). It is, in effect, a new form of income tax levied on the better off (those who have financially benefitted from university education). It seems to me a specialised form of public funding. The question is whether a) it will be regarded as unfair because it favours those who have made millions before or without having first received a university degree; b) Those likely to be taxed in this way will accept it or vote out the government that introduces it.

That is why I think it is a matter of changed ethos.

ps I understand you are describing the student state of mind rather than your own specific thoughts on the matter but I wasn't sure where the distinction lay.

Diane said...

Dear George,
Such a generous response, as ever.

First, I didn't really mean to imply that the "Tories are the devil's party". I do, however, believe that the coalition government has taken advantage of the popular mood of self castigation (i.e., "the recession was a righteous punishment for our personal credit card debt")in order to move quickly forward a long-term conservative agenda about reducing collective/state investment in all areas that could/should be the individual's responsibility (i.e., cut public spending in all public services where the individual should be responsible, and not the state). That is a complex area of political discussion.

And second, yes, of course, this country does have a long and stunning liberal tradition (your references to the WEA, the OU, etc).

What I am trying to say is that there is a difference between the questions of (a) how/whether/to what degree education is unconsciously and fundamentally understood to be "a good" within any particular culture; and (b)how education is funded.

Yes, these link at the surface (and in the pocket) but I am arguing that education in Britain has always been deeply (in the psyche) a method of gate-keeping to ensure that influence and power are circumscribed socially.

At the moment, university fees are the focus and university students appear to be the issue but, in fact, the enormous cuts (since the election) to secondary education and to substantive services that affect young people ecologically speak very loudly of an intensifying pretense that education is (and should be) a privilege and not a national resource to be protected. Indeed, such processes suggest that education's function is not perceived to be within the realm of fundamental wealth in and of itself. Nor, I would argue, has Britain ever really believed that to be the case -- putting aside, of course, the rich liberal tradition that has protected and created what we do have and that you refer to with examples like the WEA, etc.

Personally, I still regularly hear "ordinary" people refer to themselves as "not clever enough for..etc". And it has always struck me as odd that English people of my generation speak of "grammar school" (a competitive route) as their moment of greatest pride. If these are not intimations of "education as a non-democratic function".....well, I rest my case on two silly examples.

I need not, of course, gesture toward the questionable reason why routes to power are very highly focused in public schools and Oxbridge on this island. Heigh ho.

George S said...

There is a deep argument here about the nature of British society, partly about its class base, partly about British ideas (however arrived at) about 'cleverness'.

I couldn't possibly deny the first argument: the question would be how far it had changed or could change (Old Etonians, Oxbridge and all). Some things have changed in my time here - the idea of deference perhaps, the idea of respectability - mostly in the middle classes, as well as the idea of culture which is now much more tabloid than it once was but at the same time more comprehensive and ambivalent.

As concerns cleverness, that naturally leads on to education, because if cleverness is considered suspicious or decorative then so will university education be. This idea of cleverness and education as something less than a virtue seems to me deeply rooted at almost all levels. Gradgrind is never quite in his box. It may be Puritanism, it may be the early Industrial Revolution, it may be class interest. It may be all these things.

As regards the financial crisis it cuts both ways. In other words there is a tension. Hatred of bankers and big business awarding themselves huge bonuses is pretty widespread, but people do probably feel a degree of personal guilt for living 'beyond their means'. The fact that it was the banks and business that encouraged them to do so may be a little lost in that tension.

More later.

Diane said...

You are so generous, George. I'm writing a complicated paper at the moment (on another subject) and should not be spending time wasting your time -- despite the importance of this subject.

I think I'm just trying to say that this fees vs grad tax bizness is hiding, probably, a radical reverse button. At the very moment when we could seriously democratise and expand education via electronic means, we are likely to be reducing access for home students and we are in danger of closing many, many doors. And, really, what we are also witnessing is a transformation of the very structure of higher education.

Yes, I agree with you that a graduate tax seems the better alternative.

Thank you for your kindly and energetic chat this morning.