Tuesday, October 12, 2010

I still believe in free education

Yes in my heart of heart I still believe that charging for undergraduate degrees is wrong. I still wish it was free for all, allowing the opportunity for anyone who wishes to advance themselves through hard work and application. I don't believe markets in education work because of the special factors (mainly the one-off choice with little scope to rechoose and the "buy-before-you-try" position).

And over the years I've put that belief into action. I've marched against fees many times. Within my party I've argued for the scrapping of fees, before, during and after the time when we held that policy (and been told by some children that I should join another party; invariably they were hardliners from the so-called Conservative Way Forward).

So it's with a heavy heart that I receive the Browne Review. And it's not just the review. One of the heaviest facts to bear is that university fees of one form or another have been with us for thirteen years now. Every year that passes makes it that much harder to abolish them altogether.

And the economic circumstances make it very hard to embark on new expenditure ventures at the present time, even if some sensible moves are made like finally consigning the 50% target to the dustbin of history. The 2005 proposal of curbing expansion and using the money saved to axe fees is simply not viable now. Invariably some form of contribution from the students is a pill that has to be swallowed.

So it's a question of how and when to obtain that contribution. Paying huge amounts up front is nonsensical. Paying afterwards, when the ex-student is earning sufficient, is about the only way. And the Browne Review recommends raising the earnings threshold before repayment begins to £21,000. Is that so bad a thing to accept?

In such a situation it's ever harder to get worked up about the precise level of fees charged or if the amount will be variable. They will not be paid up front. And the Browne Review is also recommending increasing grants to poorer students.

If the message can be got forward that nobody will have to pay until they are earning significant amounts then maybe it can work.

But I'll still dream the dream and hope that one day we can return to free education when the time is right...

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