Thursday, 2 December 2010

Calm down, dear

Student protesters: had they read the Bill, they might not have been so angry
How would you like to start your working life with up to £40k of debt? This is a question NUS President Aaron Porter asked young people last month on the eve of the first wave of student protests.

It came as Lord Browne recommended the Government allow universities to charge up to £9,000 a year for tuition fees - a doubling of the current maximum that many will take up due to the massive cuts in their budgets.

The answer any sensible person would give is, of course, 'no thank you' but you could say that about anything related to money - nobody wants to stump up if they don't have to, it's human nature.

But let's take a good look at what exactly has sparked all the rage, hatred and violence spilling out onto our streets because, I have to say, I have as yet to hear a credible case against Lord Browne's proposals.

That Britain is in £4.3 trillion of debt is an inescapable fact. That this situation is becoming unsustainable and desperate is another. That cuts in public spending must be made to alleviate this is the most important.

Higher education is expensive. If you want to give people a top-class education you need money for good lecturers, high-tech facilities, research programmes and so on.

The state can no longer afford to contribute the lion's share, meaning the people who actually use the service have to stump up.

Here are some more facts - the money can be lent to you, it has no interest added and you only start paying it back in minuscule proportions once you can afford to do so.

Much more favourable terms than if you want to buy a house, for example, where you will borrowing well over £100,000 at often rather high and variable interest rates. Something most people manage to do without getting upset and smashing up police vans.

Furthermore, banks aren't particularly sympathetic to your ability to pay back a loan. A student loan, on the other hand, is paid back in direct relation to income. If you earn under £21,000 and university clearly hasn't worked for you, chances are you'll never pay back a penny.

If you do earn over £21,000 then the chances are you'll barely notice the repayment coming out of your account (at 9% of your income) and there isn't even any interest added until you earn £41,000 at which point you are - well done! - very rich indeed and really shouldn't mind.

Now, the NUS website isn't particularly useful at explaining why this is a bad thing. It seems to treat opposition as self-evident and thereby not worthy of debate or mention.

But perhaps the most frequent, and bizarre, argument is that higher fees will somehow 'put poor students off' university altogether.

Where is the logic in this? For starters, the poorest students currently have their fees paid by their local education authority, which will continue under the new proposals. Secondly, regarding debt, they would only start paying it off once they weren't poor anymore, so what is the issue?

There also appear to be some unusual moral objections.

Sally Hunt, the seemingly confused general secretary of the University and College Union (UCU), for example, told the Guardian: "The extra fees being forced on students and their families is money universities are being denied by government. It's a simple case of robbing the public to plug a government funding gap."

Eh? Where does she think the money came from in the first place? The printing press? Magic? Taxation. A good a euphemism as any for robbing the public in my book.

This is, in fact, fairer because people who do not choose to go to university are no longer paying for those who do.

It is clear that the thrust of the protests, particularly the violent ones, are coming from ideologically motivated groups and individuals exploiting both ignorance over the proposals and the generally rebellious nature of youth.

It is worth asking the question, too, of why tuition fees were introduced in the first place - so more young people could go to university. A vote-winner, sure. But are we really better off for it?

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