The £9,000 fee debacle: Were our terms deliberately too generous?


Last Friday came the news that many of us under the new £9,000 tuition fee regime, indeed anyone with even the most basic grasp of economics knew all along: £9,000 fees will probably work out more expensive to the government than £3,000 fees.

As my friends and I were the first to be forced into this new system, teachers and universities, acting on what they thought was benevolent advice from the government, were keen to labour the same argument again and again: that we should not worry about getting into debt because we were unlikely to ever pay back even a fraction of our fees. We would be lucky if we were to meet the £21,000 salary threshold in the first few years of graduating and, even if we did, the repayments would be so insignificant they would be no more burdening than a monthly phone contract. The relatively lax attitude of the Student Loans Company in chasing up payments was also well known. Some minsters even had the audacity to tell us to stop moaning, that we were actually getting a fairer deal than our elder counterparts, especially given that students on low incomes would be given bigger bursaries under the national scholarship scheme. This all now seems very foolish.

Indeed at a time when unemployment darkens the door of even the most qualified graduate and an economic crisis greater perhaps than that of the 1930s, continues to cast its ugly shadow over the world, it appears nothing short of astounding that in 2011 this government optimistically predicated that the vast majority of the UK’s 2.5 million students would all be in jobs with salaries over £21,000 shortly after they left university.

I refuse to believe that the administration could have been so short-sighted. The government must have known that the repayment terms they proposed in 2011 were completely untenable. But they continued anyway while the Liberal Democrats claimed a victory. This new regime, it appeared, came closer to their pledge to abolish fees because in real terms it meant virtually no pay back for the vast majority of students. But the elephant in the room remains unanswered: what is the point in higher fees if no one comes close to paying back what they owe?

The only conclusion I can draw is that the generous terms we have been promised were always going to change at some point; this system is, without a doubt, a honey trap. It was designed to allow the Liberal Democrats to claim a victory when in fact they had conceded, almost completely, to the Conservatives. At some point, probably not originally during this parliament, the terms would have to be changed to justify tripling the fees up in the first place.

Indeed the reality of the situation is that many of the sweeteners that the Liberal Democrats claimed they had fought hard to negotiate for us have already started to be eroded. The National Scholarship Programme is to be phased out, apparently because it had no impact on whether poor students decided to come to university or not, never mind the sheer lunacy of giving people more money then they’d probably ever seen in their life to spend upfront when they have massive tuition fees loans, and we have now learnt that many of our loans will be sold off to loan sharks… just as soon as the government has found a way to convince them they are worth buying.

Students, believe it or not, are not stupid. Most of us realise and understand the seriousness of the economic situation that the world finds itself. We are not asking for higher education to be free. We know that we have to pay for the vast majority of our degree; we accept that. But we don’t need politicians to lie to us. Of course we want the best deal and as much financial support from our government as is currently possible but we need to fully understand what we are getting ourselves into; we need an open and honest debate of the kind we didn’t have in 2010/2011. Perhaps we could have fees of £5,000- £6,000? What would that entail for the government and for us? Would we students be prepared to accept a repayment threshold of £15,000 or even £12,000? Would that require higher monthly payments over a shorter period of time and is that better than long term debt? What about a graduate tax? Is that fairer? Or what about means tested tuition fees?

Let’s have a re-think and discuss all the options again because the current £9,000 system was never going to work for you and it has become clear that it certainty isn’t working for us either.