Monday, November 1, 2010

Is it right to charge tuition fees?

I have no longer any time to write on either of my blogs (or have any kind of social life), so I am henceforth going to occasionally post essays I have done for school. It's lazy, yes. But maybe someone will be interested?

“University tuition fees are political dynamite” starts the Economist’s article, before vehemently launching an attack on those protesting the coalition government’s latest reform. The Economist declares that British universities need increased funding to increase supply as “demand for higher education is booming around the world”. In other words, ‘all these poor people have high aspirations, what are we going to do about it?’

There is currently a shortage: effective demand is higher than supply. The government’s initiative would produce a rationing effect - as price increases, demand decreases (some consumers leave the market). The higher price acts as a signal to producers of this particular service, higher education, and presents an incentive to maximise supply (and profit). However, “universities would also lose out” asserts the writer, although only if subsidies are taken away. This remains to be seen, but, if correct, Ed Miliband’s claim would be justified: that the higher fees would “plug the gaps created by its programme of cuts” instead of benefiting universities.

The author further argues that, of all the Lib Dems, only “one backbencher” is openly opposing the recommended rise in fees. Yet after a glance at Twitter, I can affirm that Tim Farron, John Leech, Stephen Williams, Gordon Birtwistle and John Hemming are some of the other MPs ready to vote against the legislation. Clearly, this attempt to demean the “Lib Dem mutiny” is founded on hyperbole.

Tony Blair, the Prime Minister at the time of the introduction of tuition fees in 1998, approaches the subject in his memoirs imploring the reader to sympathise with him. He emphasises how “fiercely contested” his attempt to make a “change in the modern world” was. Did you know it “almost led to my resignation”? Aw, diddums.

Like other controversial times during Blair’s career, he expresses his admiration for the US and idolises their competitive education system. David Blunkett’s worries over lower-ranking universities are described by the former Labour leader as “a typical egalitarian muddle”. Trivialising equality is a speciality of Blair’s.

He acknowledges the 2001 “manifesto commitment not to allow top-up fees” yet dismisses its relevance. The commitment had sparked controversy when the new top-up fees were put forth in 2006, under the same government who had previously asserted “We have no plans to introduce University top-up fees”. This is reminiscent of the now notorious photograph of Nick Clegg proudly showing his signature beneath the promise “I pledge to vote against any increase in fees”.

Once the author arrives at the actual issue and morality of tuition fees after much gabbling, he justifies the policy by putting particular strain on how much it would help universities, albeit mentioning “And poor students would get real and significant help.” (almost as an afterthought). In my view, siding with firms instead of consumers is not very left-wing; this is a prime example of Blair leading the Labour Party whilst keeping his affection for Thatcher firmly in mind. As he writes, “if Labour was to govern for significant periods, it had to be as a party of the future-orientated centre ground” – put differently, ‘I’m not a leftie, please like me’.

The Tories have never made any promises not to increase tuition fees and consequently are not constrained by their manifesto, unlike the Lib Dems. Presumably this stems from the fact the latter party assumed they could ensure rainbows would really be made of skittles, without ever having to come close to implementing these policies. They would not be in the firing line, they would be able to vote however they liked.

The Conservative manifesto states that, in power, they would “enrich students’ lives”. A little ironic, although upon further reading it is revealed this would only be done by improving the quality of teaching, not their financial situations. To do this enriching, they affirmed they would “consider carefully” (or simply agree with) Lord Browne’s review, which had not so far been released.

Menzies Campbell and Charles Kennedy, Clegg’s predecessors, have both expressed their concerns over the Lib Dems’ betrayal – as well as Liberal Youth’s chairman. The Liberal Democrats seem to be divided over the issue as some prioritise their morals, others their newfound friendships with the Tories.

The Labour leader communicated his opinions on the matter as far back as June, advocating a graduate tax in an article for the Guardian. Miliband wrote he would “bin tuition fees” altogether, instead opting for a payment “between 0.25% and 2% of their income” over 20 years. However, perpetually rising numbers of foreign students are coming to England for their advanced education. You cannot devolve taxation, can you Mr Miliband?

On this note, it is vital to bring up the subject of the anomalies of devolved Britain. Welsh and Northern Irish fees are presently the same as English fees. On the other hand, the year 2000 brought an end to tuition fees in Scotland. The Scottish are now able to attend their universities free of charge at the British taxpayers’ expense. Furthermore, foreigners from the EU can acquire degrees in Scotland free of charge, unlike the English. In the current economic climate, during these times of austerity, surely the situation has to adapt.

I will most likely want to eventually possess a degree in a subject that interests me, such as English or Politics. I am fortunate in having grandparents who pay half of my current fees and a mother who works hard to make up the rest of the bill. Of course, I will also have to take out a loan for accommodation, living expenses, etc. As someone whose principal foible is stressing over the most minute nuisances, one of my worst fears is being in debt, and this is a certainty with even higher tuition fees. Assuming there will be a cap on the fees, as assured by Nick Clegg earlier this week, I will personally not be put at such a disadvantage though. Be that as it may, I know students that would be and, on a more selfish level, I would prefer to expect a wide range of backgrounds in all universities. After all, I will go there to gain experience and I suspect this rise in fees would jeopardise that.