Tuesday, 18 January 2011

The Right Choice for Students

Making ends meet when the country inherited record debts and an annual black hole the size of the entire NHS budget was never going to be an easy task for the new Liberal Conservative government.

Last week saw the first tensions with student protests in London. The one predictable thing after any difficult protest is that armchair commentators ask questions about the police. I actually think they did an amazingly professional job given that the protest had been infiltrated by violent, far left extremists. As a country, we need to start expecting people to take responsibility for their own actions and, yes, that includes student protestors.

It was a difficult week for some Lib Dem colleagues but I do think that Nick Clegg demonstrated good leadership by doing what was right for the country even though he knew it would be unpopular.

I have some sympathy with future students on one level. They are being asked to pay back some of the cost of their university education when their parent’s generation were not. But, for years now, there has been a looming crisis around funding universities which needs to be addressed. The number of people wanting to go to university has shot up from about 13 percent a generation ago to almost 50 percent now. Having well funded academic institutions that are international centres of excellence is important to the competitiveness of our nation. The money needs to come from somewhere. You either have a sharp increase in taxes for everyone else or you ask those who actually benefit from a university education to pay back something towards it during their working life.

Some students say it is unfair to expect them to contribute to their own education at university. But why should someone who leaves school at 16, gets straight to work but might have to struggle on a low income have to subsidise a high flying doctor who might earn £300,000 per year? Is that fair? Under the current proposals, no graduate will be expected to pay a single penny back until they are earning over £21,000 a year. That’s a lot of money.

Everything in government is about choices. If you choose not to increase tuition fees you would have to take the money away from others and that wouldn't be fair. Alternatively you would have to cap the number of university places funded and perhaps return to the situation a generation ago where only a few people went to university and where millions of young people were told that university was not for them. I think that would be wrong too. We should aim to support young people in the choices they make in life and if large numbers of them want to go to university then we should put in place a system that makes that possible. That is what the government did last week.