Sunday, 17 October 2010

Browne Report - not all bleak

As a student who will graduate at 21 years old with a personal debt of over £30,000, I would fully encourage the abolition of tuition fees. Then again, I would also encourage philanthropists to offer me their fortunes and allow me to spend my life writing ranting blogs and baking misshapen brownies.

I was outraged when I heard that there was a chance tuition fees would be raised and I still fail to see a way in which this would benefit anyone other than the wealthy. But neither can I put my full weight behind a blanket criticism of all the recommendations set out in the Browne report.

The introduction of tuition fees in 1998 the was hailed as New Labour at its worst, favouring the middle and upper classes to the complete detriment of many underprivileged students who would not be able to front the costs, even with the help of low-interest student loans. The argument that it would discourage the less motivated was a direct contradiction of the 50 per cent target, which allowed university places to be filled by students with lower academic abilities.

An increase in fees would be bad enough, but uncapping them so that universities have carte blanche to charge whatever they want, for whatever they want leads to a de facto privatisation of the higher education sector (or industry, if you will).

Similarly, the idea of government funding for departments deemed by Whitehall bureaucrats to be the most worthy laughs in the face of vocational teaching, and courses in Arts and Humanities becoming more expensive than the sciences will cause creative industries to become even more elitist.

Yet in a slightly schizophrenic turn, there are elements of the Browne report which, if applied, would mean a more progressive system of university funding.

No up-front fees, and a repayment threshold of a £21,000 salary - compared to the current, unrealistic £15,000 - will be beneficial to less well-off students. And Vince Cable's suggestion of a tiered interest system will avoid those with the financial means (or the parents with financial means) to cover the costs from getting away with not contributing their share to the national money bank.

Part-time students would also benefit from the ideas set out in the report. It seems absurd that there is currently no help available to those having to undertake their studies whilst working, as they are often more in need of financial aid than eighteen-year-olds with parental support.

It is unfortunate that the more positive aspects of this reform have been overshadowed by the main issue of uncapping tuition fees. The Liberal Democrats have now set themselves up for a catastrophic loss of support amongst young people - a demographic often overlooked by the main parties whilst campaigning. More worryingly, passing legislation so detrimental to students will likely exacerbate the loss in confidence and trust in politics amongst my generation.

I have often made my position on higher education funding clear. Lowering university places to allow entry to only the exceptional would allow for full funding of those students who will bring something positive to our society and do not have the financial means to subsidise themselves for three years. This way, we would have dedicated, well-educated graduates without normalising debt for an entire generation of mediocre students who consider a university education to be a rite of passage, rather than a privilege you earn through years of hard work.