Why the Lib Dems should end their opposition to tuition fees

It is a point of faith among many Liberal Democrat members (54% of them, according to the Lib Dem Voice survey) that university tuition should be funded out of general taxation. A report from the Liberal think-tank CentreForum, Time’s up: why the Lib Dems should end their opposition to tuition fees ought to be required reading for any Liberal Democrats entering this debate. The report argues that the old Liberal Democrat policy on fees is both regressive and ineffective.

It seems entirely perverse to me that tuition fees should be paid for from general taxation, because graduates earn significantly more than non-graduates. Going to University is an investment in your future, in the literal sense – and an investment that more often than not pays off. The Browne report suggests that the cumulative extra income of someone with a University degree is £120,000, compared to people moving into the workplace with just A-levels. The Government has also calculated that the Graduate Premium is worth £400,000 compared to the national average wage.

As most taxpayers are non-graduates, with something like £400,000 lower lifetime earnings, a policy of taxpayer-funded university involves a significant redistribution of resources from poor to rich.

Interestingly, CentreForum’s research finds that there appears to be little or no link between a graduate’s income and that of her parents. Higher education appears to have become a successful class leveller.

The problem is that there is still a disproportionately low number of students from poorer backgrounds. According to Alan Milburn’s work, in 2000 (the year I entered University), 39,900 young people from less advantaged socio-economic groups went into higher education – representing 25.0% of all young people entering higher education. Young people from less advantaged backgrounds represent half of all young people nationally. By 2007 (under a fees system), this had slightly increased to 48,900 young people, or 29.1%.

This rise was far too modest, but fees doesn’t seem to be the deciding issue. The CentreForum report shows that the old system of ‘free’ tuition did not increase the number of deprived youngsters going to University. In fact, the participation gap between the social classes grew fastest between 1977 and 1995 – three years before tuition fees were introduced.

It’s also interesting that for students with equal A-level results, the likelihood of going university cannot be predicted on the basis of their parents’ incomes, fees or not (although there is evidence that poorer youngsters are less likely to get access to Russell Group Universities, overwhelming less likely to get access to Oxbridge, are more likely to choose local HE institutions, and more likely to choose courses with lower graduate premiums). The real issue is preparing poorer pupils for university, and making sure they get the grades at A-level.

University still isn’t the destination for enough less-advantaged young people. But from the evidence, it doesn’t seem to be the fees that put them off- particularly as we’re talking about deferred fees, variable and based on future earnings.

What does seem to be unfair is to have the regular taxpayer fund largely middle class people (even if they weren’t middle class before they entered University, the statistics show that they likely will be afterwards). The money would be better spent on the pupil premium or the tax cut for low earners – getting poorer pupils into the academic position to go onto Higher Education.

The NUS pledge that our MPs signed before the election was: “I pledge to vote against any increase in fees in the next parliament and to pressure the government to introduce a fairer alternative.”

Vince Cable’s suggestions include variable fees dependent on future earnings and scrapping up-front costs for part-time students. When Vince says he is introducing “a fair and progressive policy for Higher Education”, I think he’s right.

The Alma Mater

Published in: on October 18, 2010 at 10:20 pm  Comments (6)  

Vélib and the Boris Bike: reasons to be optimistic

There has been some scepticism about the possibility of the Boris Bikes causing a critical mass of cycling that will turn our city into a pedal-powered Utopia. My experience of cycling in Paris this week suggests that it could. The Vélib hire-bikes are everywhere in Paris, and since their introduction the number of people cycling Parisians has increased hugely, despite physical conditions on a par with London.

Sceptics of vehicular cycling say: “The problem is not a lack of bikes, but that Londoners in the main don’t cycle because conditions for cycling in London as with the rest of the UK, are terrible when you compare them with Dutch cities. Londoners are scared to cycle and it’s quite obvious why. This problem cannot be resolved by making fractionally more bikes available. It can only be addressed by making conditions for cyclists better.”

I agree. But Paris shows that getting a critical mass of people on bikes can increase the number of people cycling, even if the infrastructure isn’t welcoming.

Paris is technically a horror for cyclists. Haussmann’s wide Boulevards are fast-moving, multi-lane roads that are frightening for cyclists to navigate. The boulevards meet at huge roundabouts like the Place de la Concorde and the Place de la Bastille: chaotic, unmarked, terrifying wheels of death for a cyclist. Parisian drivers have scant regard for lane discipline even where there are road markings. The Byzantine one-way systems stymie each and every attempt to reach ones destination. There are very few advance stop lines for cyclists at traffic lights.

There are cycling routes across Paris, but not noticeably more useful than the ones in London. And the French attitude to cleaning and maintenance means that parts of the cycle paths are in a state of disrepair, blocked by rubbish and parked cars. Parking enforcement in general seems non-existent, with cars and vans casually abandoned all over the place (in one case, in the middle of a four-way intersection).

The Vélibs themselves are in a poor state of repair. Most had poor brakes and made concerning mechanical noises. Many in the stands were completely unusable- with flat tires, broken seats, no brakes at all. There doesn’t seem to be the same kind of attention to moving the bikes around to where they are needed as there is in London. A lot of the stations were either completely full or totally empty – whichever was worse at the particular time.

It ought to be a nightmare – but somehow it works. The Vélib scheme doubled the amount of journeys taken by bike, and it shows. Cyclists, especially Vélibists, are everywhere. Presumably in consequence, motor-drivers seemed to understand how to share the road with bikes, and treated cyclists with more respect than the average London cabbie. Pedestrians were similarly understanding of cyclists mounting the pavement at the worst roundabouts and most inhumane stretches of road.

The Velib has performed a real modal shift in how Parisians get about. Paris has terrible cycling infrastructure on a par with London’s– so I’m optimistic that the Boris Bikes could be part of a similar revolution in our city.

Published in: on October 16, 2010 at 4:44 pm  Leave a Comment  

No Pressure – 10:10 campaign goes psycho

I was just saying the other day that more adverts should contain elements of threat. “Buy this or else” has been a relatively underused marketing technique. Franny Armstrong, Richard Curtis, and the 10:10 campaign team then immediately provided an object lesson in how to spectacularly fail to make this work.

The failure is ironic, because climate change is actually a threat that will cost lives. This should sort of work, but fails in its primary aim: making people laugh. It’s just not very funny.

The theme is that hippy child-indoctrinating teachers and pointy-haired middle-management will literally murder you for not taking part in their climate change project. They are killing people for failure to obey.

Mr. Creosote ate himself to death. It was funny because the consequences were the results of his own actions – that final mint! In the version directed by Curtis and Armstrong, Mr. Creosote would be exploded with dynamite by a sneering Mr. Motivator (is that still a valid pop-culture reference?) for being overweight.

But the biggest reason for the failure is probably the genuinely shaken, shell-shocked look on the face of the schoolgirl, and the horrified moans of the gore-splattered employees. Too realistic!

There’s also the undercurrent that environmentalists actually think people should die. Adam Bell blogged only a few days about the “rise of the Environ-Mentalists” – people who seem to actually think that a mass genocide is the most effective way of dealing with climate change. Given that some actual environmentalists do think like this, maybe this is a bit too far into wish-fulfillment territory.

10:10 already withdrew the advert, deciding that they “missed the mark”.

But for a good example of how adverts can successfully use threat, see this Egyptian Cheese advert:

Richard Curtis is now officially less funny than Egyptian cheese marketers. If he’d lifted the panda idea directly, it would have probably been pretty good. Pandas are affected by Climate Change, right? Maybe swap the panda for a Polar Bear.

Published in: on October 2, 2010 at 12:23 am  Comments (3)