On tuition fees, we ain't seen nothing yet

In a vindication for those behind the last two rises, more people from poor families are going to university

Share

I am so old that I can remember when students hated the Labour Party because it broke a promise not to raise tuition fees. That was in 2001, when David Blunkett, the Education Secretary, persuaded Tony Blair – against his better judgement, Blair suggests in his memoir – to put the promise in the Labour manifesto.

As soon as the election was over, Blair appointed Charles Clarke in Blunkett's place with a view to breaking the promise. Clarke thought this was a bad idea, and tried to find other ways to pay for university expansion. But when he looked at the main alternative, a graduate tax – an extra income tax on new graduates – he thought it was worse. The arguments against a graduate tax are technical, but they are worth rehearsing because last week's record university applications explain why Blair was right to break his promise, and why Nick Clegg was right in his more recent, and more spectacular betrayal.

The Labour government was much mocked, it should be remembered, for setting a target of getting 50 per cent of each cohort of sixth-formers into university. This would devalue degrees, we were told, and, worse, it was "arbitrary". It was a target plucked out of a speechwriter's desperation because it sounded good. But this year it looks as if 50 per cent of school-leavers will go to university, and they will choose to do so, in most cases paying the cost of those degrees themselves, because they think they are worth it.

That is not a devaluation, it is a vindication of the late Ron Dearing, who designed today's system of fees payable after graduation. That system has allowed more students than ever to go to university, and a greater proportion of them from poorer families.

The main argument against a graduate tax may sound like one in its favour, which is that it is an obstacle to a market in university places. That may seem like a good thing to people worried about universities offering free laptops to students with three E-grades. But the alternative to putting purchasing power in the hands of students and making universities compete for them is to let the Government decide which courses should be funded. In the end, most people who look at this question decide to trust students, rather than a government board, to make the least-worst decisions about which courses are worthwhile.

Another argument that weighed heavily with Clegg and Vince Cable, when they decided to keep the Blair-Clarke model and to triple fees to £9,000, was that a graduate tax could not be levied on graduates living overseas. Had they opted for it, English and Welsh universities would have been required to offer free places to all EU students with no way of paying for them. Admittedly, recovering student loans from abroad is hard, but at least you get some of it back.

What is so striking about the story of student finance over the past two decades, though, is that the fees-and-loans model has been so consistently unpopular, yet the politicians have always been forced back to it.

The subject was already radioactive before the 1997 election, which was why Dearing, Chancellor of the University of Nottingham, was drafted in to set up a cross-party review. Labour's manifesto for that election was honest by later standards. It said that the expansion of universities was "necessary", but "cannot be funded out of general taxation". It was left to Dearing, after the election, to say how to pay for it. But it was not until 2004 that his proposal, of tuition fees repayable when graduates were earning, was fully implemented. First Clarke, then Gordon Brown (who used it as part of his campaign to oust Blair) and finally Clegg tried to make a graduate tax work. Each of them had to give up.

The graduate tax was revived by Ed Miliband when he became Labour leader but has not been heard of recently. I can reveal that this is because he, too, has accepted that it cannot be made to work. If Labour wins next year, tuition fees will stay, possibly in slightly reduced form. The problem of switching now is that the Government would have to fund universities until the revenue from a graduate tax started to come in. "We cannot afford a graduate tax," I am told.

Student finance is a fascinating case study in democratic policy-making. Politicians who try to give the public what it thinks it wants are forced to accept that the unpopular option is more sensible. Clegg and Cable hoped their broken pledge would be forgotten if student numbers continued to rise and poorer students were undeterred. It came to pass, but they will get no credit. If anyone deserves the credit it is Lord Dearing, who died in 2009.

Soon enough, fees above £9,000 a year will arrive and it would be a foolish politician who is tempted to promise to stop them. That is why I don't think any of the three main parties will promise next year to block higher tuition fees.

twitter.com/@JohnRentoul

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Solutions Architect - Permanent - London - £70k DOE

£60000 - £70000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

General Cover Teacher

£110 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Reading: Great opportunities for Cover...

Maths Teacher

£110 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Reading: QTS Maths Teachers needed for...

Maths Teacher

£110 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Reading: QTS Maths Teachers needed for...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The bustling Accident & Emergency ward at Milton Keynes Hospital  

The NHS needs the courage to adapt and survive

Nigel Edwards
 

Letter from the Sub-Editor: Canada is seen as a peaceful nation, but violent crime isn’t as rare as you might think

Jeffrey Simpson
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
The 10 best smartphone accessories

Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

Liverpool v Real Madrid

Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?