Wendy Piatt: Low-paid workers are delighted

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Labour MPs unhappy with the higher education Bill are reassuring each other that the war has only just begun. The first battle may have been lost but they feel there will be ample opportunity to mould the Bill into a more palatable proposal.

Labour MPs unhappy with the higher education Bill are reassuring each other that the war has only just begun. The first battle may have been lost but they feel there will be ample opportunity to mould the Bill into a more palatable proposal.

There is, however, little room for manoeuvre if the reforms are to retain their progressive defining features. One of the Bill's underpinning principles is that the graduate should make a fairer contribution to the cost of their education. But the original package was relatively generous to students and still required the taxpayer to foot the lion's share of the bill. All students gained substantially from the scrapping of up-front fees, the raising of the repayment threshold and the apparently last-minute decision to drop the introduction of a real rate of interest. Subsequent concessions - such as the increase of the loan - also benefited all students. The poorest benefited from the enhanced grant.

It would sound churlish to question such "largesse" and there is a strong case for these concessions. But on top of the other subsidies? Each concession loads costs back on the taxpayer - including low-earning tax-payers who never had a chance to go to university. Each penny spent on graduates makes students in further education less likely to receive anything like such generous deals even though they tend to come from poorer backgrounds and earn lower wages. Less likely that money will reach young children on Sure Start and other child-care initiatives that address the roots of disadvantage.

But some MPs have talked about further concessions such as raising the repayment threshold even higher - a move that will benefit the richest graduates - surely one concession too far. The fate of the Bill through Parliament is not a foregone conclusion. Even if it survives both the Commons and the Lords, it will face a grilling from the public. The views of the electorate on the higher education reforms are tricky to gauge. Opinion polls have produced conflicting results. Straw polls on TV or radio indicate little support for the policy but then the audience is usually composed of the "politically engaged" - who have ideological problems with it or are following party line.

But every so often evidence emerges of a silent majority who thinks the policy is reasonable. They are the low-paid workers who don't think it is fair that even more of their hard-earned wages should go on subsidising the middle classes to have a jolly life for three years and obtain a passport to the highest paid jobs. A mechanic featured on television spoke up for this reticent group. Hearing the result of the vote he quietly said: "This is victory for low-income families." No jubilation, just quiet relief. These ordinary people aren't the most vocal - they don't participate in studio audiences or take to the streets.

They are also wary of sounding mean or envious. According to one MP who says that his mail bag is full of complaints about housing, council tax and fox-hunting, higher education is way down the list. Of course middle class parents with teenagers are not mad keen on the prospect of their offspring "saddled with debt".

Labour MPs in marginal seats are justifiably concerned. It's not the easiest policy to sell on the doorsteps. But top-up fees were never designed to be a crowd-pleaser. Tony Blair has surely dismissed claims that he panders to popularity in pushing ahead with such a radical policy. He is taking a risk - that the middle classes will understand that an increase in their contribution is both fair and will raise standards in universities and that those on the Left will finally recognise that this is a progressive and redistributive proposal.

Certainly some Labour MPs experienced Damascene conversions to Government policy. Others objected more to the PM himself and his powerful advisers rather than the policy per se. But the whole episode has demonstrated the difficulty the Government faces in achieving change in the face of what the PM calls "the forces of conservatism".

The writer is senior policy fellow at the Institute of Public Policy Research

education@independent.co.uk

Comments