AC Grayling is proof that you can be very clever and very stupid at the same time

June 8, 2011

At first, I wasn’t sure if there was any point to adding to the deluge of blog posts about AC Grayling’s plan for a new “elite” university. Enough pixels have been wasted on The New College of the Humanities than is surely merited. However, it cannot do any harm to give this nauseatingly awful idea as good a kicking as possible, just to make it never gets off the ground.

The NCHUM looks like a scheme destined to end in tears. It can’t award degrees, nor call itself a “university college”, which is how the NCHUM styled itself when it launched last week, nor even conduct any research. It’ll only take about 350 students. Two of its “star turns” are only going to give one lecture a year, which is far removed from the NCHUM’s claim that the 14 star turns “will contribute personally to your educational experience”. It’s also not clear how this scheme will break even. Apparently £10m has been raised, and the college hopes to break even by its third year of running. The NCHUM is financed by venture capitalists. They, surely, are going to want some return for their cash aren’t they?

I’m not really sure what AC Grayling, Richard Dawkins, Niall Ferguson and the rest hope to achieve with this college. I suspect that it’s probably the ability to earn a bit of cash, though Grayling has, it seems, higher motives. This is what he wrote in an e-mail to the President of Birkbeck’s Student Union:

A civilized society ought to pay out of the communal purse for the highest quality education for everyone, from the earliest schooling to high education. I hold that view, as I take it you do. But our society has chosen to pay for things other than the humanities and social sciences in higher education; it has turned over to universities the task of funding those subjects, and yet has done it in an unsustainable way because the true cost of educating to a very high standard is much greater than the fees universities will now charge…

You can have two reactions to the fact that the Coalition government (in fact: any of the three main parties) will neither fund universities adequately out of general taxation, nor allow universities to charge the true economic cost: you can protest in the hope of getting them to reverse their policy, or you can accept the profound unlikelihood of the latter, and seek another way of keeping high quality humanities education going over the long term.

 

He seems to have decided that “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em”. It’s a good job Grayling didn’t take this approach to civil liberties. Instead of defending our liberties, he’d be on Newsnight demanding that terror suspects be jailed for two years without charge, rather than writing article after article criticising Labour’s assault on liberties.

If we accept Grayling’s good intentions at his word, then he’s being incredibly foolhardy. I don’t recall him ever criticising any government for cutting university funding, or introducing tuition fees. The only article I can find on universities for the Guardian is this one, where he attacks Peter Mandelson for suggesting that universities should provide more contact hours. In that, he argues that students should be essentially left to their own devices: despite that, the NCHUM boasts of a staff-student ratio of 1:10 and that it would give “personal attention” to students.

Dominic Lawson has written one of the better articles on this scheme. In it, he says:

One academic blogger [has labelled] this as a place for “Tim nice but dims whose parents are prepared to spend a fortune having them fall asleep listening to lectures by AC Grayling”.

Yet what harm does this do? If parents wish to spend their money in this way, why shouldn’t they?

Sarah Churchwell wrote something similar, in response to Terry Eagleton’s wonderful polemic, in which she basically argued that we should give this a chance.

I disagree. We shouldn’t “give this a chance” or let rich parents buy university education for £18,000 a year just because they can. That’s because the NCHUM seems to be part of the commodification of higher education. As university fees keep going up and up, students will surely see a good degree as their “right” – something they have “bought” – as opposed to something to be earned.

This has certainly happened in the United States, and has been increasing in Britain since the tripling of university fees (albeit going by anecdotal evidence). I know of talented doctoral students who are going to drop out of academia because they are tired – already – of teaching students who see a good degree as something they have bought, like a pair of jeans or trendy new sportscar. Some lecturers are now reluctant to go to graduation ceremonies – usually the high point of the university calendar – lest they get accosted by parents who are unhappy that their child has not received their 2.1 that they “paid for”. The simple fact is that a university education should be gotten on the basis of academic ability, not the ability to pay £54,000, as would be the case for the vast majority of students at the NCHUM.

Although Grayling wishes the NCHUM to follow the American model, that’s not what it’s doing. It took – of all people – the head of a privately-run university in Britain to point it out. From the Dominic Lawson article:

Buckingham’s ferociously libertarian principal told me that Grayling’s new college “is just a bunch of opportunists trying to make some money. They are not giving up their day jobs in the academic state sector. These left-wing intellectuals will just be making easy extra money, funded by venture capitalists”. But weren’t Professor Grayling and his band of “left-wing intellectuals” just doing what Kealey had long urged – to emulate the American system? Not a bit of it, said Kealey: “The great US humanities colleges are entirely charitable foundations, not profit-making bodies. Grayling’s lot are just going to be working to make a return for the venture capitalists backing them — and taking a slice of the equity themselves.”

Grayling says that he wants to improve university standards. Yet this is not the way to go about it. This is as likely to raise standards in universities as Oz Clarke selling bottles of WKD to upper-class schoolboys at £18,000 each is likely to stop binge drinking.


Nick Clegg’s Social Mobility Strategy: targeting the wrong thing in the wrong way for the wrong reasons.

April 8, 2011

“It’s the law of inverse relevance. The less you intend to do about something, the more you have to keep talking about it.” – Sir Arnold Robinson, Yes Minister.

Nick Clegg has launched a social mobility strategy. A hefty report was published this week which says that “improving social mobility is the principal goal of the Coalition Government’s social policy” (p. 1). That’s because “no one should be prevented from fulfilling their potential by the circumstances of their birth” (p. 5).

Most of the coverage of this strategy has gone on the subject of unpaid internships. I’m glad this issue has come into prominence: the glut of unpaid internships is scandalous and I hope to tackle it in a later blog post.

For now, let’s just look at the government’s plans to increase social mobility.

I haven’t read the report cover-to-cover, but I’ve got the gist of it. It’s a very frustrating document for two reasons. First, because it ignores one of the chief causes of social immobility. Second, because ignores that cause, the report doesn’t have any decent policies to combat social immobility.

1) Income inequality

The available evidence is limited, and it certainly isn’t the only cause, but societies with a higher rate of income inequality tend to have a lower rate of social mobility. Via the Staggers, I’ve pinched this graph, which you can also find in The Spirit Level:

The issue is not quite as straightforward as this table suggests. For the counter argument, see pp. 72-75 of this Policy Exchange paper that critiques The Spirit Level. Much of the data on social mobility between countries is not really directly comparable, and as a result the OECD thinks that the academic literature on international social mobility rates should be treated “with a great deal of caution” (see p. 73 of the Policy Exchange paper).

This confusion is reflected in the Social Mobility Strategy paper itself. Take this paragraph on p. 22 of the report:

1.41 There is an active debate about the relationship between income inequality and social mobility. Academic studies comparing levels of social mobility in different countries have found a correlation between high levels of income inequality and low levels of social mobility, although some have criticised the validity of this finding. Of course, correlation isnot the same as causation. The drivers of social mobility are complex, and income alone does not determine future outcomes.

I wonder if you can tell which bits of that paragraph were drawn up by the Conservatives…?

However, it’s common sense that you can only have social mobility, and true equality of opportunity, if there is a certain level of income equality. The first reason, as Chris Dillow put it, is “simple maths; the closer the gap between high and low incomes, the easier it is to leap that gap.”

A second reason is because, as the authors of this study into intergenerational mobility found, there is a strong relationship between family income and educational attainment. The authors found that a child from a family who’s income was a third less than the mean was three or four percentage points more likely to get no A-C GCSEs. Their chance of getting a degree fell by a similar amount (p. 14). In Britain the relationship between family income and educational achievement has gotten stronger, mainly because the expansion of higher education has most benefited those from higher-income families.

It stands to reason, therefore, that if income inequalities rise, the disparity in educational achievement between the richest and poorest in society will increase, and the prospect of social mobility falls. (I feel I should point out, however, that the authors of the CEP study did not go as far as to state this explicitly. We’ll come to their solutions later).

There’s another reason why you cannot have equality of opportunity without some equality of income. For that, I’m going to turn to what is rapidly becoming my bible: Ha-Joon Chang’s 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism. It’s Thing 20, if you’re interested.

(P)oor children are bound to perform poorly in school, whatever their innate ability might be. Some of them go hungry at home and also skip lunch at school. This makes it impossible for them to concentrate, with predictable results for their academic performance…If their parents are illiterate and/or have to work long hours, children will have no one to help them with their homework, whilst middle-class children will be helped by their parents and rich kids may have private tutors. Helped or not, they may not even have enough time for homework, if they have to take care of younger siblings. (pp. 217-8)

For social mobility to happen, we need equality of opportunity. For equality of opportunity, a degree of income equality is needed. This report skirts around that issue, and because of that misses the point on a number of issues.

2) Addressing social immobility

It seems most likely that the issue of inequality was ignored because, for most Tory governments, reducing income inequality is not going to be on their priority list. The question then arises is: if you ignore that, how are you going to combat social immobility? And do you even want to?

As was pointed out in this achingly wonderful piece on what left-wing social mobility would look like, “There are clear problems both of morality and logic – the fact that if one poor person goes up, one rich person must go down – with this model of social mobility [that Clegg is proposing].”

That doesn’t really fit well with a large part of the Tory voting demographic. You can tell that in the Daily Mail’s reaction to Nick Clegg’s plans:

It seems that quite a few people would rather we kept things the way they are, thank you very much.

Charlie Beckett summed up the problems with using terms like “social mobility” very succinctly:

Real social mobility – all other things being equal – must surely mean that some people will rise over their lives and others will fall. If we all rise then that is simply economic growth. If only a lower social group rise relative to a higher group, then that is egalitarianism, not social mobility. If just a few people rise, then that’s just tokenism.

All of which leaves us with a quandary.

3) What now?

So, if social mobility is not only unobtainable (since Nick Clegg is explicitly ignoring equality of income as a goal for his government) and even if the social mobility Clegg talks of is undesirable for the Conservative’s core vote, what does the coalition do instead?

The answer just seems to be to talk about social mobility. There are no proposals in the document that aim to address the causes of social mobility, or inequality, or any form of disadvantage at all.

Take the area of gender inequality, for instance. The report ignores David Willetts’s faintly ridiculous remarks and says that the government sees “gender equality as an important factor in improving social mobility” (p. 57). But you’ll find no policies whatsoever about how to tackle the issue of gender inequality, apart from a brief discussion on the unequal nature of maternity and paternity leave.

Granted, you’ll find discussion of lots of problems, be given some rather disturbing figures and generally get the impression that Something Ought To Be Done. But then you get to the recommendations section.

Bear in mind, when you read these recommendations, Sir Arnold’s Law of Inverse Relevance.

Here’s the list of recommendations, which I’ve put in block quotes with my interpretation in italics:

We have developed ‘leading indicators’ of success in improving social mobility for each lifestage. These will also be included in departmental Business Plans, ensuring that they are at the centre of the work of departments, increasing transparency over the impact of our policies and helping the public to hold us to account.

This is talking about social mobility.

We will provide funding for a successor to the Millennium Cohort Study, ensuring that thereis a rich source of information on the long-term influence of our policies on social mobility.

More talking about social mobility.

We are establishing, on a statutory basis, a Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission to monitor progress on social mobility, as well as towards the measures in the Child Poverty Act 2010.

Even more talking about social mobility.

The Deputy Prime Minister will continue to chair the Ministerial Group on Social Mobility to unite Whitehall departments in improving social mobility.

This is talking about talking about social mobility.

We are setting out the key milestones in implementing this strategy and identifying who in Government is responsible for them.

Talking about talking about talking about social mobility.

All departments will consider the impact of new policies on social mobility.

Talking about talking about talking about talking about social mobility.

You get the idea.

If you follow Sir Arnold’s law, then, the coalition appears to want to do the square root of bugger all about social mobility. All of these groups started, research commissioned, committees set up to do whatever it is committees do…and not one single policy recommendation that would improve the lives of the poorest in society.

It’s not as if policy recommendations don’t exist. They exist in the reports cited in the Social Mobility Strategy document itself. Take the report on intergenerational mobility that I quoted earlier. This is what they have to say on the subject of policies:

To improve this situation we need also to use more direct means such as early years’ education, improved schools for poor communities and financial support to pursue post-compulsory education. Indeed, this is the policy direction that the Government seems to be taking through programmes like Sure Start, Excellence in Cities and the Educational Maintenance Allowance (EMA). (p. 14)

Oh.

So the way to improve chances for the poorest would be to through policies like Sure Start Centres, which are being cut, and EMA, which was axed, and then brought back in a woefully inadequate form.

I’m sure Nick Clegg will point to the Pupil Premium as being an example of Lib Dem policy designed to help the poorest children, but that money is not extra money to the Education budget, so it would be disingenuous of him to do that.

Obviously, the last thing Nick Clegg would want to be would be disingenuous.

All of which means that the government’s social mobility strategy is nonsense. It’s a strategy without a strategy. It’s targeting the wrong thing in the wrong way for the wrong reasons.

Which means the left needs to win this intellectual argument. Owen Jones started this with a good CIF article some weeks back, arguing that social mobility was a distraction that detracted from income inequality.

And I can’t think of a better way to end this piece than to quote Paul’s blog from Though Cowards Flinch that I linked to above:

Well, as I’ve said here, I think it looks like the cider advert, where identifiably working class males mass on the hill side, tooled up and ready to march on the sleepy town in the valley.

It’s a vision of pride in what we are, and a potent image of solidarity in what we can be.  It’s also a vision tinged, if you want to see it that way, with menace to the status quo – a sort of #manualworkeruncut, coming ready or not.

Or in other words, trade unions.

Which is certainly an improvement on the pathetic excuse of an initiative that is the government’s Social Mobility Strategy.


Hey Porter, will you tell me the time? Time to go, actually*

February 21, 2011

* with apologies to Johnny Cash.

It would not have been an easy year for anyone to have been President of the NUS. Aaron Porter has certainly had a difficult time of it, and there will doubtless be plenty of celebrating now he has announced he will not seek a second term (see his full statement on Liberal Conspiracy here).

This is fairly big news. Porter will be the first NUS President since 1969 not to stand for a second term. It’s been clear, however, that he’s not had the full support of the student movement for a while. Owen Jones, again on Liberal Conspiracy, has written a very good piece on Porter’s failings. It took the NUS far too long to support any of the protests that followed the November demonstration against tuition fees, reflected in the fact that Porter was heckled at an anti-fees protest in January.

In this context, it’s odd that Porter should say in his statement that:

If I have one criticism of this year, it would be that we have not been quick enough to talk about our achievements – and I hope we can pause for a moment to remedy this.

I think anyone must have a certain amount of cojones to say of themselves, “the only thing I did wrong this year was to not talk enough about how fantastic I’ve been. If only I had done that, I wouldn’t be leaving now”.

It’s hard to know what Porter was thinking when he wrote that. Sadly, as with so many of the NUS’s blunders over the past few months, it seems he wasn’t really thinking that much at all.

When he first became NUS president, Porter announced he wanted to lobby politicians to change policy, not just hold demonstrations. It’s a point that comes over clearly in this Observer interview conducted soon after his election, in which he says “if vice-chancellors expect us to stand on the outside waving placards they are sorely mistaken”.

I have no problem with political lobbying. It’s Parliament that makes the laws, and you need to be able to influence them if you want policy changing. That’s just common sense. However, this strategy seems to have backfired in two ways.

First, it led to Porter, by his own admission, “dithering” and being “spineless” in his lack of support for student demonstrations and student occupations. A student movement needs both political lobbying and grassroots-style campaigning, and under Porter’s Presidency the NUS tended too much to the former.

Also, the attempt to lobby politicians ended up with the NUS being burnt very badly. In December came revelations that the NUS had “urged” the government to cut student grants to the poorest students, which came on the eve of more protests in favour of a free Higher Education in December. Porter defended himself by saying the NUS had suggested no such policy, instead saying that:

We were asked by [Vince] Cable to demonstrate how fees could be kept at current levels and on the basis of his request we produced modelling to show how that could be done.

In other words, the NUS was asked to demonstrate how universities could be funded, given both the cuts and if fees were kept at the same level. Instead of saying to the government, “that’s ridiculous, you shouldn’t be cutting funding for universities anyway you daft ‘aypeths”, the NUS made up a funding model by cutting the amount of money in student grants. This was then leaked to embarrass the student movement.

The fresh revelations last week were the final straw. In a memo you can read here the NUS describes the fees increase as “progressive”:

The loan gets written off after 30 years (currently 25)- the vastly increased numbers of graduates that will never pay the loan off are in fact what makes the system relatively progressive

As well as this:

Much has been made of the Government’s 80% cuts to teaching budgets; of course, whilst thats true, there has not been an 80% cut to the overall Universities budget- in fact the subsidy has been moved into this state backed, loan based voucher scheme.

 

 

Both these claims contradict points Porter has been making in public about not only the “progressive” nature of these fees rises, but also his use of the 80% cuts to budgets number to make his case for a graduate tax. His position is untenable now.

 In other words, Aaron Porter has tried to play politics, and lost.

 What happens now for the NUS? Surely they must reinstate their opposition to fees, full stop. A slogan of:

What do we want? Progressive contributions to our higher education using a fair graduate tax! When do we want it? As soon as is politically expedient!

Isn’t exactly going to set the world alight.

As I argued above, the NUS needs to unite political lobbying with active campaigning. You must have both in order to effect real change.


What implications will raising tuition fees have for current students?

January 31, 2011

An article I’ve written for Graduates Anonymous, about the impact of the tuition fee rises on current students.

First, the good news. The amount that current students will pay for university remains unchanged. Changes to university fees won’t actually come into effect until 2012, which means that even if you start university in September 2011, you will still be paying fees of  £3000 a year for the whole of your degree. Although there will be no direct consequences of increasing current fees, there’s a few possible indirect consequences of raising fees to £9000 a year that could affect students at university at the moment.

1) Funding shortfall

In their infinite wisdom, the coalition government has decided to cut university funding before increasing fees that were intended to make up for the cut in government funding. This means a 6% cut to the university budget – about £400m – effective from this April; one year before the money will come in from the tuition fee rise. This comes after a £449m cut to the universities budget in February 2010, where the Research budget was frozen and buildings cost cut by 15%.

If research funding is cut, this could have implications for current students who want to do postgraduate study after their degree. These cuts mean that university staff with have to do “more with less” – which could affect staff morale and the quality of teaching they give to undergraduate students.

2) University/Course closures

A survey from the University and College Union found that one-third of universities were “at risk” as a result of government cuts. This is because those 49 universities are dependant to a large extent on government funding to survive. These universities could therefore be forced into mergers with other institutions or to close altogether.

Obviously those institutions that UCU have labelled as “high risk” are disputing this status, saying that they are popular with students and will survive regardless.

The Vice Chancellor of Chichester University has said that his institution should not be regarded as “high risk”; saying the UCU’s report was “politically motivated” and “completely fails to gauge the capacity of a university to thrive in the new framework”.

Perhaps more likely are courses closing at individual universities. Course closures have been happening for a while now,  and not just in so-called “Mickey Mouse” courses. Lecturers’ Unions have been concerned about the closure of physics courses for some time, as it could leave some parts of the UK unable to provide courses in science and maths.  

Course closures will obviously have implications for undergraduates on those courses at the moment. If you are studying at a course that, say, is going to close at the end of your degree and admit no more undergraduates, it is likely that those lecturers at those departments will leave for other academic departments before it closes. This leads on to my third point…

3) Brain Drain

David Blanchflower compared the current situation to Higher Education in the 1980s in a New Statesman column from a few months ago:

University heads and the president of the Royal Society, Martin Rees, have warned of an academic brain drain… Less scientific funding is likely to lower the country’s economic competitiveness. I was among those who left the UK in the 1980s because of low academic salaries and poor research funding. Here we go again.

This could affect the quality of teaching at universities for current undergraduates, if some of the better staff decide to go abroad, or even leave academia altogether.

4) Postgraduate Fees

What if current undergraduates want to stay on after their degree and do a masters, or even a doctorate? Do the fees increases have any implications for them then?

There is no word of whether postgraduate fees would increase. The postgraduate fees market is a relatively free one anyway, with little government funding and universities able to charge what they like. It is therefore possible that there will be little change to postgraduate fees, because at the moment they are the market price: between about 4,000 and 5,000 a year on average.

However, I would be very surprised if postgraduate fees did not rise as a result of these proposals. If charging £9000 a year for university fees becomes socially acceptable, perhaps this could encourage universities to raise their prices. Especially since they might have to raise these to cover the funding shortfall that I mentioned in reason 1).


Some tuition fees number crunching

January 16, 2011

On the day MPs were deciding whether they should vote to raise the cap on tuition fees to £9000 per year, Nick Clegg said that students should look more carefully at the proposals to tuition fee funding before protesting against them:

My message to the students who are protesting is to ask them, one final time, to look at what we’re actually proposing rather than what they are alleging we are proposing. Actually under our system they will all, all the demonstrators, will pay out less per month than they do at the moment. All the part-time students who are demonstrators wouldn’t pay any upfront fees whatsoever. Many of them would never pay the full value of their loan whatsoever. (at 9.24am)

Here at Paperback Rioter we like to do what we are told. Most of the time anyway. So I’ve been doing a bit of research on the implications of what these plans actually mean for students.

Firstly, Nick Clegg really ought to have read his proposals before he voted for them. Perhaps all the demonstrators will end up paying less per month: but they will be paying more in total. The Institute for Fiscal Studies estimates that 23% of students would be better off than at the moment, but that still means the vast majority of graduates will pay more than under the present system. An average earner of £30,000 per year will end up paying £2000 more under these proposals. Furthermore, 10% of graduates will end up paying back more than they borrowed in the first place.

Secondly, Clegg’s claim that all part-time students will avoid paying up-front fees is spurious. Under the new proposals, students who study for less than 25% of their time will be ineligible for student loans. That’s one-third of all part-time students, equating to about 100,000 people, according to Channel 4.

The most depressing aspects of these reforms are the fact that government funding is going to be withdrawn to arts and social science subjects.

Nick Clegg: must try harder next time.

The best background summary to the issue of university funding is this Telegraph article. University education in Britain was free until 1998, when Labour introduced fees of £1000 per year for all students. After saying in their manifesto that they would not increase this level of fees, in 2003 Labour decided to triple the amount students would pay for their university education to £3000.

When Labour were in government (and doesn’t that feel like a long time ago?) they asked Lord Browne, the former chief executive of BP, to conduct a review into Higher Education in November 2009. You can read the report here and read a good summary of his recommendations here. It is these slightly-tweaked recommendations that the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition brought into law.

Browne proposed the lifting of the cap on university fees altogether, so that universities could charge as much as they like for students. The cost of paying for university would shift from the taxpayer to the student, who would take out a loan to cover their maintenance and course costs, and pay that back once they started earning. Browne also recommended charging interest on these payments of 2.2% above inflation. The wage at which students will start paying their loan back will increase from £15,000 to £21,000, and this figure will go up in line with inflation.

Instead of this, the government has raised the maximum amount that universities can charge to £9,000 a year. The Higher Education Policy Institute have said it’s very likely that all universities would have to charge this full amount. After all, universities will have to charge £7,000 a year just to make up for the shortfall of funding resulting from the coalition’s cuts.

These plans were opposed by Labour MPs. Their leader, Ed Miliband, is in favour of a graduate tax, as are the National Union of Students. This is a system where graduates do not pay any upfront fees, but instead pay a graduate contribution through their – you guessed it – taxes. Not all Labour MPs were in favour of a graduate tax: their shadow chancellor Alan Johnson was a staunch defender of tuition fees, but has recently come round to Ed Miliband’s position.

The Liberal Democrats have copped quite a bit of – justifiable, in my view – criticism over voting for plans in government to triple university fees when every Lib Dem MP signed a pledge before the election to vote against a rise in fees. Nonetheless, Nick Clegg and Vince Cable are convinced that we should support these tuition fee rises because they are “fair” and “progressive”. Let’s see if they’re right.

In a sense these plans are progressive, as the absolutely invaluable IFS report on these proposals makes clear.

[T]he Government’s proposed system is more progressive among graduates than both the current system and the one recommended by the Browne Review. The highest earning graduates (those in the top two deciles) would pay more on average than under the proposals

See also their table on p9. The bottom-earning quarter of graduates would pay less than at the moment, but those earning most at the top will pay more. Nick Clegg, therefore, does have a point.

As Haroon Choudhry from the IFS says on the BBC news clip I linked to earlier, this system of repayment is basically an extension of the system currently used at the moment. Students take out loans to fund their course, then pay these loans back out of their pay cheque when they begin earning. In that sense, if you have no problem with the present system, and think that students should contribute to the cost of their higher education, there is no reason why you should oppose these plans.

A graduate tax, as favoured by Labour and the NUS, would not be much of an improvement. Under this proposed system students would pay 9% of their income towards their Higher Education for thirty years, at which point the debt gets written off. It basically acts as a graduate tax in all but name, as the IFS say.

Furthermore, it has been argued by some economists that a graduate tax would actually act as a disincentive for graduates to earn more, or move abroad, as they would be taxed more on that income.

I’ve argued before that a graduate tax is an inadequate way of funding higher education. The best way to fund universities would be to have it completely free for students, funded by the taxpayer. I’ll explain why in a later post.


The Liberal Democrats: An Obituary

December 10, 2010

In affectionate remembrance of
THE LIBERAL DEMOCRATS
Who died at the House of Commons
ON
THURSDAY 9 DECEMBER 2010, at 5.41pm.
Deeply lamented by a small circle of
grieving friends and acquaintences
(although loathed by many more)
R.I.P
N.B. The body will be cremated and the Ashes distributed between
The Conservatives, Labour and the Greens (according to their wishes)

A friend put it best on Facebook yesterday:

Vote passes by 21 votes. This means that if the Liberal Democrats had honoured their pledge to vote against the rise in tuition fees, we would have defeated this legislation. This is an absolutely unforgiveable betrayal of their voters by Liberal Democrat MPs. I hope every one of them who ignored their election promises loses their seat. They will deserve it.

‘Nuff said.

(any relationship of this post to this may not be entirely coincidental)


Nick Clegg makes a tin of spam look like a calculating political genius

December 7, 2010

In one sense, Nick Clegg has kept his word.

I know, I can’t believe I’ve just written that sentence either.

In an article for The Times specifiying the priorities the Lib Dems would have when brokering a deal to enter a coalition. These are the same priorities listed on the front of the Lib Dem manifesto:

You could well argue that the Lib Dems have hardly fought tooth and nail for these priorities, to put it mildly, but that’s an argument for another time.

The point to note for the moment is: these priorities do not include anything on university fees. Indeed, it seems that the Lib Dems had decided before the election that they would not spent too much time defending their pledge to vote against any rise of tuition fees:

A month before Clegg pledged in April to scrap the “dead weight of debt”, a secret team of key Lib Dems made clear that, in the event of a hung parliament, the party would not waste political capital defending its manifesto pledge to abolish university tuition fees within six years. In a document marked “confidential” and dated 16 March, the head of the secret pre-election coalition negotiating team, Danny Alexander, wrote: “On tuition fees we should seek agreement on part-time students and leave the rest. We will have clear yellow water with the other [parties] on raising the tuition fee cap, so let us not cause ourselves more headaches.”

Chris Davies, a Lib Dem MEP for the North West, articulated quite clearly what a lot of you must now be thinking about “that pledge”:

Our opposition to tuition fees was born of principle and sustained by electoral popularity. It was an indulgence. The truth is surely that it survived as party policy because in our heart of hearts we didn’t think we would be in a position to put it into practice.

It’s no wonder, then, that people talk of “betrayal”. This behaviour from the Lib Dems is certainly very cynical, if not downright deceitful.

Vince Cable has defended the current position on the Lib Dems on tuition fees (which is currently to vote for the proposal to triple university fees, though who knows what the policy will be tomorrow, or the day after that) on the fact that the Lib Dems have a coalition agreement to follow:

We didn’t break a promise. We made a commitment in our manifesto, we didn’t win the election. We then entered into a coalition agreement, and it’s the coalition agreement that is binding upon us and which I’m trying to honour.

Except this is what the coalition agreement says on university fees:

If the response of the Government to Lord Browne’s report is one that Liberal Democrats cannot accept, then arrangements will be made to enable Liberal Democrat MPs to abstain in any vote. (p32)

I’m not sure abstaining on the issue would be much of an improvement either. As Nye Bevan once said, “We know what happens to people who stay in the middle of the road. They get run down.” But it would at least honour the coalition agreement. The worse aspect of this whole sorry business is the fact that the Lib Dems gave themselves an opportunity to abstain on any fees arrangement, but are now voting for it, meaning they’re neither honouring their coalition agreement nor their pre-election pledge.

This FT blog catalogues the catalogue of strategic errors the Lib Dems have made on the fees issue, concluding with the fact that:

(R)ather than keep the reforms at arms length, the Lib Dems took on full responsibility for redesigning the system. By getting too involved in creating the policy they effectively gave up their right to stand aside.

Peter Oborne has argued that Nick Clegg has shown that he is a man of judgement and courage. Actually he seems more like an opportunist and a lightweight, who is playing a bad hand very poorly indeed.


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