University Fees: England exploited (again)

Arguably many of the most insane features of the British political class’s moralist outlook on life are exhibited by its twisting and turning over who should pay for universities.  From all the sound and fury over whether this or that Liberal Democrat MP – mediocrities all – would vote for or against tuition fees, nobody would guess that the government is supposed to be dealing with an annual budget deficit of £160 billion (about 30% of its income or about £6,000 per household) and still rising.

First there is the overwhelming preoccupation with social class and the need for “fairness” and “accessibility”.  It is impossible to get a general working definition of “fairness” from any of the politicians or academics who advise them.  In the fees furore it boils down to getting the same proportion of students from social classes C2, D and E (roughly the ‘manual’ classes) as from social classes A, B, C1 (roughly corresponding to the ‘writing’ classes).  Again, roughly, the C2, D and E classes are about 40-45% of the population (A, B, C1 are the other 55-60%).

Universities are now marked on how their intake compares with these (changing) proportions.  Notwithstanding their position in several league tables as numbers 1 and 4 in the whole world, Cambridge and Oxford are singled out for obloquy in the minds of many LibDems because only around 12% of their intake comes from the C2, D and E classes.  The assumption in LibDem heads seems to be that academic potential is more or less uniformly present in all social classes and that despite huge amounts of evidence to the contrary, Oxbridge’s “failure” to reflect this in their admissions is down to their innate bias against the “poor”.

No other country suffers from a political class with such an everlasting obsession about class and education to the extent that we have in England (Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are much less obsessive about this matter).  In the USA, a similar obsession is focussed on participation by race, or rather Black-White differences because Asian participation in the elite Ivy League universities is beginning to outstrip White as well as Black.  The second massive preoccupation of the political class is that England must pay to keep Scotland in the Union at almost any cost, rather as the Canadian Liberal party has done with respect to Quebec’s remaining part of Canada.

The British government’s latest plan for university fees means that English-domiciled students will eventually pay back tuition fees of £15,000-£27,000 wherever they study in the United Kingdom, while Welsh-domiciled students will pay a maximum of £9,870 wherever they study in the UK, while Scottish-domiciled students will be charged zero in Scotland.  As its website so reassuringly puts it, “Tuition Fees for higher education in Scotland represent excellent value for money”.  The question of course in the minds of the English taxpayer is, “whose money is providing this excellent value?”

In yet another demonstration of the undemocratic character of British constitutional arrangements, the House of Commons vote on Thursday, 9th December to approve the government’s fees policy involved all 40 Welsh and 60 Scottish MPs (out of a total of 650 UK MPs), among them 13 of the 57 agonising LibDems.  Needless to say the 532 English MPs had no say in setting the Scottish and Welsh fees.

The EU Dimension

For the dominant UK political class, membership of the EU trumps every other consideration however extreme the disadvantage to the British people.  In 2009/10 there were 120,000 EU students in British universities out of total full-time numbers of 1.4 million of which 1.1 million are on the standard 3-year undergraduate courses.  Of these about 950,000 were in England.

These 120,000 EU students will be charged up to £9,000 per year in England, £3,290 in Wales, zero in Scotland and as yet an unannounced figure in Northern Ireland (likely to be around £3,000 per year), while in all four parts of the United Kingdom, English students will pay up to £9,000.  Over three years English students will therefore pay up to £27,000 more than EU students in Scotland (still more if they do one of the 4-year engineering courses or 5-year medical courses). But the manifest insanity in these EU/UK arrangements doesn’t stop here.  The arrangements for repayment of tuition fees and living cost loans means the British government has to pay EU student fees to universities upfront and then supposedly will attempt to recover these loans from EU students when their salaries reach £15,000 per annum (today), £21,000 from 2012/13.

Amid all the agonising about fee rates, have any of the MPs and government ministers, especially Danny Alexander, the LibDem Chief Secretary to the Treasury, even thought how loans can actually be recovered from these 120,000-150,000 EU students likely to be graduating by 2013/14?

Recovery of EU student loans has been in the hands of the “Student Loans Company” (SLC), as it is for recovery from UK students.  As of February 26 2009 the SLC reported (BBC News Channel) that while 2,240 EU students should have begun repaying loans incurred, only 690 (or 30%) were actually doing so.

Apart from Ireland and the two largest EU countries (Germany and France), Poland, Cyprus and Greece supplied the highest proportion (29%) of the 120,000 EU students.  Since their accession to the EU in 2007, numbers from Bulgaria and Romania are reported by the Higher Educational Statistics Agency (HESA) to be rising rapidly (surprise, surprise!) as this writer predicted they would in his post of July 16th.

Repayment of Fees and Loans: East Europeans unlikely to pay

The conditions of repayment of tuition fees and living costs adopted by the LibDem/Conservative government are that no repayment should start until a former student’s salary reaches £21,000, after which they repay 9% of the difference between their actual salary and this figure which is about 85% of the current UK average wage.  It may seem reasonable to imagine that most UK graduates’ salaries will reach this figure, if not at the start, fairly soon after graduation.  If the EU graduates remain in the UK, as all EU people are entitled to do, their salaries can be monitored through the UK tax system.  But what if they return to their native countries, or go on to a third country as many do?

The average wage in Poland is around £6,000 per annum, Romania’s about £4,000 and Bulgaria’s about £3,000.  The repayment threshold is therefore set at 3.5, 5.3, 7 times their average wage.  It is thus highly unlikely that graduates from these countries, if they return to them, will ever repay anything.  Without any mechanism in place, repayment by EU students is in any case entirely voluntary.  It would be amusing, if not so serious, to visualise some official from the SLC knocking on doors in the evenings in Krakow, or Bucharest, or Sofia say, to try to persuade graduates of UK universities to begin to repay their loans and to keep up repayments for 30 (yes thirty) years.

Has Vince Cable, who is in charge of the policies which are bringing about these insanities, ever given it a thought?  Has his (admittedly limited) imagination caught hold of the picture of an English student racking up debts of £13,000 per annum sitting in lectures or going to the laboratory alongside any number of East Europeans getting their education, including board and lodging absolutely free, courtesy of the English taxpayer?  Do Vice Chancellors in England relish the thought of many of their classes being predominantly made up of East Europeans and favoured minorities who qualify for bursaries which Cable’s Department of Business is forcing the universities to provide, as a condition more or less of existing?

We think not.

What should be done?

As of now the Scottish and Welsh governments could at least offer to set English students’ fees in Scotland and Wales at the levels they charge their own students.  There is no law against it, but the whole thing needs to be rethought from the beginning.

Arguably the most lunatic feature of the present government’s scheme is that, while savings are desperately needed to reduce its borrowing in the period to 2015, the scheme will actually increase the borrowing requirement by the upfront fees foregone, namely about £12 billion in the period 2011-15.  University education has to be paid for by someone, somewhere.  However at 18+ the family status and income of a student should have nothing whatever to do with the fees he or she pays.  They are legally independent, voting adults and should be treated as such.

The Voucher Scheme

In “University Admissions and Fees” published by the Campaign for Real Education, 2004, Stephen Bush proposed that universities should be relieved entirely of the social engineering targets introduced by successive governments.  In particular The Office of Fair (sic) Admissions (OFFA), the four Funding Councils for England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, the university part of the Business & Skills Department would be abolished, replacing all these quangos with a simple subsidy in the form of a voucher for each student which they would hand to university departments for encashment by the Treasury.

Four different levels of voucher value are proposed by Bush, depending on the cost of the courses and their assessed economic need – medicine and biological sciences the highest, then engineering and physical sciences next, then music and drama, with other arts, sociology and media courses subsidised at the lowest level.  Loans for the balance of fees, if required, and for subsistence would be provided by the banks at not more than the long-term gilt interest rate and guaranteed by the government.  The whole emphasis would be to shift away from dependence to self-reliance on the part of students and universities.

The present government’s proposed level of teaching grant to the universities under the budget plan (to 2015) which seems to be about £4 billion, would work out at an average voucher per undergraduate UK student of around £4,200.  In practice the UK government would set the four levels according to national need and course cost.  These work out at about £10,000 (for medicine) down to about £2,500 for media studies and sociology.   There would be no need for even the Russell Group of universities to charge more than about £5,000 for their courses, many of which would qualify for the two higher levels of course voucher.  EU students would be expected to apply to the EU for their course and maintenance fees;  Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland’s governments would be relieved of their commitments.  Around £200 million per annum would be set aside from abolishing the Educational Maintenance Allowance for 16-18 year-olds to pay for about 10,000 two or three year bursaries for promising, but hitherto poorly educated 15+ children to go to private day schools.  No special allowance for underperformance at A-level would then be made for them on applying to university.

Consequences of the Bush Voucher Scheme

1          The number of undergraduates at British universities would over 5 years shrink, perhaps by about a third.  Possibly a similar proportion of the 165 Higher Education institutions would have to close, or move back into the Further Education sector from which most of the post-1994 institutions came.

2          The universities would be able to concentrate on admitting students who could, in their exclusive estimation most benefit from their courses.  In essence they would become private institutions, with the government’s voucher for each student on specific courses ranking as income alongside fees paid by non-EU students as of now.

3          Standards at A-level would inevitably rise under increased competition for entry to top universities running courses qualifying for the top rates of voucher.  This would likely cause a renewed demand for the expansion of state grammar schools in the cities.

4          Perhaps 150,000 young people per year would be deflected on to Further Education courses more relevant to their interests and abilities than Higher Education courses.

5          A huge, noisy, time-wasting area of political debate would be expunged from our national life: the only government decision, once in every five years, would be to set the values of the four levels of course vouchers.

Consequences of continuing with the government’s scheme for university fees

It is clear, as we have previously remarked, that England should be renamed as Mugland.  The Scottish National Party must really be enjoying the fees spectacle.  Anything more calculated to cause English taxpayers to call a halt to this fees “taxation without representation” could hardly be imagined.

When English students in England settle into their lecture seats next to Scottish or East European students paying nothing or next to nothing for exactly the same education, the reality of the fantastic unfairness of the UK government’s scheme will finally dawn on them and their parents.  Presumably they and their parents will never vote for the LibDemCon party ever again.

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3 Responses to “University Fees: England exploited (again)”

  1. phoenix says:

    Our students start life with a £30,000 debt and their inheritance has been given to the State to provide aged care for their parents. That is about £250,000 that their counterparts in Scotland do not pay. To cap it all those same students are expected to pay taxes that will be used to fund the Barnett formula that pays for the gifted lives of Scottish students. I say again.

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  2. Frank Drummond says:

    Interesting slant, but if a Scottish student goes to uni in England he will have to pay fees will he not? So what’s the problem?

    Point of information – the most subsidised people in the UK are Londoners.

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  3. Jake says:

    Frank Drummond Says:
    December 16th, 2010 at 4:42 pm
    Interesting slant, but if a Scottish student goes to uni in England he will have to pay fees will he not? So what’s the problem?


    The Scottish government has said it will pay these fees on behalf of Scottish students.

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