If more evidence were needed that the word “progressive” should be expunged from political discourse, look no further than the government’s response to the Browne review. Both senior Tories and Lib Dems have said they agree with the thrust of the report’s recommendations, summarised here, emphasise that they must be just because they are “progressive”. For instance, here’s what David Cameron said today:
I am heartened by the fact that whether it is Conservative colleagues or Liberal Democrat colleagues we all want to achieve good universities, social mobility, fairness and a progressive system.That is exactly what I think we will do.
“Progressive”, if it means anything, means telling others what they don’t want to hear refers to a system of taxation where the richest pay more than the poorest. As has been pointed out, those earning between £35,000 and £60,000 would actually pay back more than those earning £100,000, because the richest would pay less over a shorter period of time. The Social Market Foundation estimates that those earning £27,000 a year would actually pay the most back. Therefore these recommendations by Lord Browne are unfair and should not be accepted by the government.
These plans will make going to university about the ability to pay. Universities will have to charge at least £7,000 a year to make up for the money they will lose from government cuts. Removing the cap on fees will deter poorer students from going to university: this is simply common sense.
There are some decent recommendations in the review, such as allowing part-time students the right to pay fees after they graduate, and giving teacher training to academics. But even seemingly worthy plans such as the plan to raise the threshold at which fees have to be paid back are double-edged: as Browne recommends students are charged interest at 2.2% above inflation on their loan repayments, it just means the debt will keep on rising and rising whilst students don’t pay their fees back.
What is most disturbing is that Browne recommends:
There is a critical role for public investment even if students are investing more. There are clinical and priority courses such as medicine, science and engineering that are important to the well being of our society and to our economy. The costs of these courses are high and, if students were asked to meet all of the costs, there is a risk that they would choose to study cheaper courses instead. In our proposals, there will be scope for Government to withdraw public investment through HEFCE from many courses to contribute to wider reductions in public spending; there will remain a vital role for public investment to support priority courses and the wider benefits they create. (p25)
As the Guardian puts it, “Government given scope (sic) to remove funding for all but “priority” subjects – medicine, science, engineering and modern languages”. As someone who did a history degree, I’m obviously horrified by these proposals. As David Eastwood, one of the people who helped run the Browne review, put it in an interview five years ago:
But as one of a small group of historians-turned-vice-chancellors – others include Deian Hopkin (South Bank), and Rick Trainor (King’s College, London), he says the discipline can be a useful grounding for the job. “My interests as a historian were policy, power, political culture and how ideas influence politics. If you write about the history of government in the UK, you need to have some idea how Whitehall works. Both also require you to be numerate, to be able to rapidly assimilate information and to be capable of identifying what you don’t know and need to understand.”
That knowledge was invaluable last year as one of the vice-chancellors most involved in shaping and helping to pass the education bill. “A group of us played a considerable role, and I think we helped both to get the bill passed and make it a better measure. There were some extremely tough meetings with the government.”
And while Labour are laughing at the Lib Dems about-turn, we should remember that, as Dave Osler has pointed out, “Not even Thatcher had the political confidence to scrap student grants and introduce tuition fees. Only New Labour could be that right wing.”
As I’ve argued before, I don’t think a Graduate Tax is the best solution either. Social Democrats should make the case for university to be paid for by taxation, and encourage vocational courses for people who are not academically inclined. Instead, the government is using the deficit as an excuse to bring in neo-liberal policies. These recommendations by Browne make me very worried indeed. They can only increase inequality and lower social mobility.