I was in the first cohort of students, who started university in 1998, to pay any kind of modern-day tuition fees in this country. At 19 years old my parents and I had to find £1000 a year and pay it, in person, upfront, via a cheque, to the midlands university I studied at. Memory fails here, but my dad was either just about to take, or had just taken, voluntary redundancy as early retirement from his job as an accounts manager at a clay company. My mum was a part-time supply teacher and care worker at a residential school for kids with emotional problems. We were, and I used to say this as a joke, two generations out of the mines, and one generation out of an absentee soldier father (my mum’s dad; she never met him) and a shopworker mother. My parents were home owners. I was the first person in my family to go to university. Somewhere in our family tree sits Florence Nightingale, but that doesn’t really lead to any kind of inheritance.
Which is to say that I am very comfortably from aspirational-working or lower-middle class. I earn almost as much money now as my dad did just before he retired. In 2007 our 2-bedroom flat cost 50x what my parents’ 4-bedroom house did in 1979. I couldn’t vote in 1997 for want of being 11 days older, but ever since I’ve voted Liberal Democrat. Not because I don’t believe in tuition fees, but because I didn’t believe in the Conservatives and in my then constituency (Teignbridge) it was a choice between yellow or blue. Not really liking the idea of Big Government when Big Government is massive, and not particularly liking the local MP in my new constituency (Exeter), I voted Liberal Democrat at the last election, too. Because I’d still never vote Conservative.
I work at successful university, an institution that has been on a rapid ascent since I started there 8 years ago. As of 3 years ago my now wife works there too. We have pensions, colleagues we count as friends, ambitions, networks of professional contacts, good reputations and decent prospects. We also have a huge amount of love for the institution. After 8 years I feel more like an alum than an employee in many ways. As an idealist, I’d say I believe in free education for all. As a pragmatist I’d acknowledge that, especially given the last 2 years, free education for all isn’t an option.
The Liberal Democrats did not get elected into government. They negotiated their way in. Anyone who has ever negotiated anything knows you have to keep secrets and make compromises (even if they end up all over Wikileaks later on). Policies aren’t beliefs; they’re pragmatic and mutual interpretations of negotiations of beliefs.
I’m OK with the Liberal Democrats changing their mind over tuition fees. It is not the sole reason I voted for them, or even a partial reason. I voted for them because I thought they’d be fair and honest and democratic. I think they’re still doing that, just about. I also think, without them, with just the Conservatives, things might be a lot worse. If the Liberal Democrats are guilty of anything beyond naivety, it’s of overselling one policy to a small demographic that they never envisaged would see them actually in government, whether on their own terms or on shared, negotiated terms.
I’m not OK with Browne’s proposed new system of tuition fees being referred to as tuition fees, and certainly not being referred to as a debt. I have debt – over a hundred thousand pounds worth of it – and something that you do not pay back unless you earn over a certain threshold, that you may never pay back in full, that you can conceivably never pay back any of at all, and that you pay back in small monthly chunks alongside your income tax and National Insurance, is not a debt. It’s a tax. A capped tax. A graduate tax. Surely? Krishnan Guru-Murthy said it in no uncertain terms a week or so ago. I’d been thinking that calling it a debt was wrong, but until I read Kristian’s post it hadn’t occurred to me that it is, to all intents and purposes, just a tax.
A tax which students are demonstrating against paying, in the same way that they’re demonstrating against Philip Green not paying his taxes. After work today I popped along to a lecture theatre on campus which students had occupied in protest, after seeing them tweeting about it. There were about 60 students in there. That’s them at the top of this post. They were discussing holding a candlelit vigil for the death of education, holding a jam session as a protest, going for dinner as a protest. Outside the lecture theatre were a gaggle of international students, presumably meant to be inside, being taught. International students already pay to UK universities what we’re about to ask our own students to pay. There’s some irony there, perhaps.
The Browne review, if implemented, can potentially allow well-run universities to really thrive and prosper. It can allow us to become masters of our own destiny, to innovate and grow in ways bound by government at the moment. I know some of the things that MIT and Harvard and Yale can do that we could never, under the current system. Browne can, potentially, allow for an amazing, enriching student experience worth far more than the beneficiaries would ever pay back in a capped graduate tax. Browne can, potentially, blow up in the faces of the Liberal Democrats and the Tories and Labour too.
There are many, many sides to this issue. I can’t see them all. I’m worried that many of the student protesters are seeing even less, and may actually be trying, effectively, to deny themselves fabulous opportunities. But I can’t see the future.