Saturday, February 17, 2007

Bloody students

Ministers have been congratulating themselves on their Higher Education student funding policy as they breathe a sigh of relief at an increase in student applications this year, without considering whether the rise in numbers might be despite, rather than because of, their policies. I thought that there might be a significant overall deterrent effect in the new higher fees and loans. I was wrong. However, this isn't the main argument against the policy; it is the one that should most bother a left party - equity.

Much is made of the boost a degree gives to lifetime earnings and the argument that students should pay more towards their degrees is fairly made, but all students pay the same regardless of the benefit they receive. Those who use their degrees for corporate management, accountancy, commercial law etc. pay the same as those who become teachers, social workers, community development workers etc. Not only are the rewards disproportionate but the debt burden is equally so.

The model is also fixated on young people leaving school. This is totally unrealistic. 50% of students are classified as "mature". Many are at the younger end of the age range but those entering in their 30's or 40's pay back the same despite having significantly fewer years to reap the 'earnings premium'.

On top of which, 40% of the total number of students are part-time and they are discriminated against in that they have to pay their fees up-front. They are currently in a vacuum.

To try to deal with this, the government has a monstrously complex and ever-changing network of income contingent grants, bursaries and discretionary Access funds. Some of these can make a big difference to individuals but they do not deal with the central inequity of the system and their reach can be haphazard.

So the system is administratively expensive, inequitable and complex, but it didn't put a number of people off. As they pat themselves on the back for this magnificent success, perhaps the words 'graduate tax' - simple, equitable and social democratic - might linger in their minds for a few seconds to remind them of their socialist past.

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