I've written a piece for this month's Progress magazine about how Ed Miliband and Labour should respond to the tuition fees hike announced yesterday. I have updated this version to reflect clarifications since I wrote the piece - and yesterday's announcements.
It was Peter Mandelson who commissioned Lord Browne’s university funding report, and his team were nominated by a Labour government. That explains why he has made so much effort to achieve fairness in a difficult financial environment, and why Ed Miliband should not oppose his plans – or the government’s version - when they are put to a vote.
Browne’s proposals lift the cap on tuition fees from £3,290 today to £6,000 from 2012, with universities able to charge more if they pay a levy. He has broadly retained Labour’s repayment mechanism, where graduates repay the costs of tuition and living expenses once they start to earn. However, he has introduced a real rate of interest and a higher threshold for any payments of £21,000 instead of £15,000 today. A graduate on £30,000 a year pays back just £16 a week in his system. Importantly, part-timers would be included for the first time, a huge step forward in terms of equity.
The coalition has broadly accepted the Browne package, though with a £9,000 cap on fees and a requirement that those charging over £6,000 do more for access. It is sensibly keeping the Office for Fair Access to monitor this.
The coalition was right to reject a graduate tax, as Labour did in government. As Browne points out, it would penalise low earners more (with a £6,475 threshold as that is when people start paying tax), be harder to collect from European students, not give universities the money they need now and impose a lifetime of repayments on every graduate.
Our universities need extra income to compete, and this is particularly true of our leading research universities who have welcomed these moves. However, we should not ignore the concerns of the newer teaching universities. Baroness Blackstone, a former higher education minister, argued on Progress’s website that the new system could deprive them of sufficient teaching resources. That’s because the coalition is cutting 40 per cent from the government’s teaching grant as the new system is introduced.
So, Ed Miliband should avoid the mistakes made by the Tories in opposition, when they opposed tuition fees despite having established the Dearing Review in government (with Labour support) that they knew would recommend fees. He should recognise that Browne has many of the advantages of the graduate tax he supports, without the disadvantages – not least because it builds on the system Labour developed in government.
In Progress, I argued that his support should depend on four things. First, the proposed cut in teaching funding for universities is too great and should be reduced, so that they see some added benefit from the new regime. This has yet to be addressed, particularly in the humanities. Second, there should continue to be proper monitoring and publication of how universities distribute bursaries for poorer students, with much better publicity of what’s on offer. This has partially been addressed.
Third, students should be able to see clearly how much contact time their courses provide and they should have more access to academics. This will become a much bigger issue when the higher fees are introduced. Ed should press this strongly. And there should be an upper limit on the new fees, of £7,000 or £8,000, so that students do not feel completely priced out of our top universities. The cap is slightly higher, but the principle has been accepted.
And then he should either support the government, or if he feels the final package is still lacking, abstain. He should not ally himself with Lib Dem rebels. To do so would exchange the short term discomfort of the coalition for his longer term credibility as a serious leader. The Tories did this to us in 2005, when top-up fees were introduced and Michael Howard suffered for it. They admit they were wrong. Ed should be bold enough to avoid the same mistake.