It all started back in November 1980; I helped publish a pamphlet written by two English friends of mine, Gary Ling and Peter Stremes, who were undergraduates at the University of Aberdeen.
We were among a group of free marketeers who had won the national elections of the Conservative Students, and, being idealistic youths, wanted to change the world.
Apart from opposing Soviet expansionism abroad or trade union malevolence at home, we believed that student grants were inadequate and that, if our government replaced them with loans, a university degree would be more affordable for more people.
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Anecdotally, in my own architecture course my Norwegian classmates on student loans had no money worries. More importantly, our empirical research found that countries with loan systems had higher proportions of women and those from low-income households at university than we did in the UK.
This evidence coincided with a belief that access to university had to expand – but how could that be financed from general taxation, especially at a time when public spending was being cut?
And anyway, why should the British people subsidise a minority to have the potential of earning 40 per cent more than those not going to ivory towers?
What we had was middle-class socialism, a policy where the many transferred wealth to the few.
Student loans instead of grants were a no-brainer. They could help the government expand university places and open up British society to be much more meritocratic.
We eventually won the argument, and once introduced in 1990, the next logical step was for students to contribute to their tuition fees, again available via a loan. Thus for students the question of graduate debt was bundled together, while for universities the issues of student support and how their teaching is funded remained separate.
Thanks to Jeremy Corbyn’s deceitful election pledge to abolish student debt (which he changed to an “aspiration” after the election), the government is caught like a rabbit in the headlights of an electoral juggernaut. It fears being squished to a pulp by millennials voting to have their debt written off and any future debt from studying avoided.
It needs to hold its nerve, go on the front foot, and hop out of the way.
Instead, almost 40 years after the loan debate started, the government is commissioning yet another study in the belief that the system is broken. And in some regards it is – but not in the way most people think.
First, the focus on undergraduate and graduate discomfort highlights the bundle of total debt, but we need to treat support for living costs and tuition fees entirely separately.
It should be for students to decide what their lifestyles will be while studying, and these loans should be fully repayable, except where there are (rightly) scholarships, bursaries or other grant awards that have been earned and are not to be repaid.
For tuition fees, it is true that raising the cap has not led to an open market with different levels of fees for competing courses or universities. The reason for this simple: demand is greater than supply, and the ceiling for the best universities appears to be too low.
This is why less reputable institutions can get away with charging the same as Cambridge, Oxford, UCL, Imperial, and Edinburgh, which are ranked in the world’s top 30 universities.
Whatever the government does, it has to ensure that our best universities are able to maintain and develop their quality. We need to be able to allow them to charge more, while expanding the availability of part-time and intermediary courses in the rest of tertiary education.
The idea of forcing some arts courses to cut their fees is very likely to create a perverse incentive, whereby students think them worthless rather than flock to them.
If we had a genuinely radical Conservative government, it would be encouraging more private suppliers to enter all levels of tertiary education, expanding capacity so the market would set its own price points through diversity in the product, its duration, and reputation.
We also need greater positivity, giving recognition to the success we have seen: a system that, due to societal prejudices and financial constraints, used to produce a relatively small number of graduates that were predominantly privileged and male has now changed into one that attracts record numbers of women and students from poor backgrounds.
It is only right that graduates contribute to gaining the benefits they receive. Introducing reforms that return the burden of costs to ordinary taxpayers would be a regressive step and should be resisted.
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