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Thursday, December 16, 2010

Student Tuition Fees, Right or Wrong?

Over the last few weeks cities across England have been descended on by students protesting against government plans to allow universities to increase tuition fees to up to £9000 per year.  The protests culminated last Thursday when MPs voted for the increase and the protests turned once again in to riots with damage to buildings and the desecration of the Cenotaph and statue honouring Winston Churchill.  While no right minded person would do anything but condemn such acts, I do have some sympathy with students who will now face leaving university with debts of well over £30,000.  That said, look a little deeper and things might not be quite so bad as the headlines suggest.

One of the arguments I have heard against tuition fees is that it will stop the poorest in society going to university. What I don’t understand is how?  Its not as if students will have to pay the fees up front. In fact they will only have to begin to pay back the fees if they start earning above around £21k a year.  What the government is actually saying is universities can now charge a maximum of £9k a year for tuition fees, not that they have to charge this.  And that the government will pay these fees for the students, but if the students then start to earn a decent wage they will have to pay back some of what the money the government spent on these fees.  If they earn a really good wage they will pay back a bit more and should they end up in very good, very well paid jobs as many graduates do they may have to pay back the lot.  Again its not as if the government will ask for it all at once, similar to todays students the money will be taken in instalments each month from the salary. In reality the poor will only have to pay for their education if they become rich(er).  From figures I’ve heard, graduates earning around £21k a year will have to pay back around £30 per month of their £1750 monthly salary.

I left university with a comparatively small debt of around £6k. The difference for me was once I earning above around £15k a year I had to pay back the loans. Then payments were split over five years meaning my monthly payments were £100 a month.  At the time the student loans company decided how much you earned a year based on only the last three months wages.  Unfortunately for me I was working in sales and had just been paid to rather large bonuses that meant my they would calculate my annual salary for that year as well over £20k when in reality I had earned less than the threshold required to repay the loan. So for the next few years I was earning less than the proposed repayment threshold of £21k but paying more than three times the amount each month that future students will have to pay.  So while graduates of the future will leave university with a large debt than I did, repaying it will be a lot more affordable than it was for me.

Another misconception seems to be that the Liberal Democrats went back on pre-election promises regarding tuition fees. Now my understanding was that any such pre-election promises from any of the political parties were for it they were to win the election.  No one won the election, a coalition government had to be formed by the Conservatives and Lib Dems which was always going to lead to concessions from both sides.  Any na├»ve enough to expect the Lib Dems to keep all their pre-election promises when they make up the minority part of a coalition is to be blunt, stupid.  When tuition fees were introduced by a Labour government and later top up fees I don’t remember any rioting by students. Perhaps the NUS has certain ties with the Labour Party which given what I have read in certainly seems the case with the various positions former heads of the NUS have taken within the Labour party. Perhaps the real motive of current leadership of the NUS is actually to turn enough of todays youth away from the Tories and Lib Dems that Labour can regain power at the next election, and nothing to do with tuition fees at all?

There is one solution I see that can please both sides by reducing the governments contribution to university education and giving students free tuition.  Reduce the number of people going to university by scrapping some of the ridiculous subjects now offered.  The previous Labour government wanted to get more and more people to university, but why? All it does is dilute the education system and devalue degrees.  Get back to only the brightest going to university to study academic subjects and provide an alternative for those wanting to gain vocational qualifications in a specific field.

Greedy bankers, people living beyond their means and a previous government that thought it could fix everything by throwing more money at it has left us in a situation where cutbacks need to be made and we all have bear some of the brunt, even if the mistakes weren’t ours to begin with.  Unfortunately that includes students paying more to go to university, they are not a special case, university education is not a right. But at least they will only have to pay for the privilege of a university education if they find a job that pays them a good salary.  If not, they get three years enjoying student life at the taxpayers expense.  Either way its a no lose situation.

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