After a fairly exasperated G(lasgow)U(ni)LD meeting last night I thought I'd get stuck in to the Guardian's two-page spread on the Browne review so that I might better judge whether we're right to be furious. I'm probably not going to read the review itself as I have better things to be getting on with, but there are a few things that jump out at me from the article that I'd like to share. Firstly, the IFS analysis: "lower-earning graduates would pay less and higher-earning graduates would pay more" Surely this is a good thing? Raising the threshhold at which repayments start seems to me to be a progressive step that we should welcome and the 9% rate over £21000 certainly seems a fair and effective option for repaying a debt. It is never good for huge debts to be hanging over graduates, but they're not going to send the bailiffs round and your credit rating won't be affected. Just as household debts are not like the budget deficit, student debts will not be like a massive credit card bill. The differences between these proposals and a graduate tax are actually fairly slight.
The major problem that Browne presents is the notion that the elitism of the top universities would be extended. The suggestion that some of the fees charged above £6000 are recouped by the government seems to be a wasted opportunity. Could we not take half of the portion of each fee over £6000 and put it into a bursary fund lowering the fee to £6000 for every third entrant? If you want to charge higher fees, you have to take in a large proportion of students from low income households (how that is defined can be a matter of debate). The best universities need to be accessible to all. Browne might not achieve this. My proposal might help.
Of course this debt burden on students is only coming about due to the teaching grant reducing from £3.5Bn to £0.7Bn. Maybe they're just softening us up with politically unpalatable cut options before they go "OK, OK, we'll put a penny or two on income tax. Just don't riot!"
One thing I do know is that an acceptance of Browne would put Scottish higher education in a quite horrible position. I presume the grant to Scotland would reduce further as a result of this step and the Scottish government will need to act fast to keep standards from plummeting and respected universities facing genuine peril. There are tough decisions ahead, and with an election coming up you can be fairly sure they won't be made for a while.
All-in-all, it's a tough sell for Vince, but with a few tweaks here and there he might just achieve it. Would I rather the general population paid for universities out of taxation? Yes. Do I think these proposals will put a generation off university education? No I really don't. And if we got our act together and campaigned to build upon some of the progressive aspects of these reforms, then we might even see greater equality of access arising out of these changes rather than less. Students, please choose your battles wisely.
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