Wednesday 13 October 2010

Are fees the only option?

Watching Lib Dems wriggling over the proposed increase in tuition fees ought to provoke at least a degree of schadenfreude, but the issue is really too serious to take any pleasure from.

The outraged noises from the Labour Party are scarcely credible either. They not only introduced tuition fees in the first place, they also appointed Lord Browne to conduct the ‘independent’ review, and we all know that when governments appoint someone to such a role, they invariably choose someone ‘independent’ enough to give them the answer that they want to hear.

The Tories, like Labour, have see-sawed on the issue; what they say seems to depend on when – and where – they are in government, and when in opposition.

And it’s scarcely a secret that I’ve been less than wholly impressed with the stance of some of my own party’s elected members on the issue either – the attempt by the Assembly Group at the annual conference last month to end the party’s outright opposition to charging students for higher education was far from being their finest hour.

There is a problem, though. Far too many politicians are simply presenting the problem as a ‘funding gap’ or claiming that free higher education is ‘unaffordable’ without really spelling out the options. The problem has arisen as a direct result of governments trying to make the opportunity of a higher education available to a larger number of our young people, whilst not providing sufficient additional resources to universities to pay for the increase in student numbers.

There are, in fact, three ways of closing the gap therefore – reducing student numbers, increasing the contribution from general taxation, and charging students ever higher fees (and whether they’re recovered through repayment of loans or some sort of graduate tax supplement is more about presentation than principle). There’s nothing necessary or inevitable about the third choice – unless and until politicians choose to rule out the other options. And that’s the nub of the problem.

Personally, I’m clear that I would not choose to reduce student numbers. Indeed, I’d choose to try and provide a higher education for all those young people who a) meet the entry criteria, and b) choose such a route (although I’d also like to see more ‘parity of esteem’ between what we currently divide into the higher and further education sectors, which might actually serve to reduce the demand). Increasing the overall level of educational attainment of our young people, and helping them to realise their full learning potential, is something which I see as being in the long term interests of society as a whole.

It means, though, that it has to be paid for. The reason we’re being told that tuition fees - and increasing ones at that – are inevitable is because so few politicians are prepared to talk openly about the choices we face in terms of taxation policy. There is an assumption that proposing higher taxes to pay for higher education is a vote-loser – based on the other assumption that we all vote in an essentially self-interested way.

There is, of course, good evidence to suggest that those assumptions are entirely valid. The great victory of modern free market thinking has been to demolish the more collectivist approach which led to the birth of the Labour Party, and it is pretty depressing that the Labour Party itself has done so much of the demolition work.

The alternative to fees is to put the argument for collective purchase and provision of higher education through a progressive system of taxation. The question is whether we want to make that argument or simply accept the current political paradigm. Short term self-interest or long term collective interest? On education, as on so much else, I opt for the latter.


Anonymous said...

OK John ... but when you know that voters (despite what they may say) will not vote for a party advocating higher (direct) taxation then there really isn't much of a choice.

You can say 'Plaid will raise taxation' and Plaid won't get elected. You could say 'Wales with more power to the Assembly could find a different route and have higher taxation' and I bet you'd also lose seats and people will live in England.

In the end, there isn't much point in holding a principle (if you want to be an elected politician) if you're just not listening to what those who elect you say.

It's a bit like saying 'I want independence or nothing tomorrow'. It's valid. I agree with it. But it gets you nowhere. So, it's pretty pointless. Plaid are advocating power for the Assembly, which isn't ideal but it's better than nothing. It's the same with this issue of student fees. You and Plaid are going to have to say something which people find credible otherwise the other parties (Labour will support this in 18 months time) will ask, 'ok, which other WAG budget is going to lose money then?'

I think a more profitable discussion is 'are there ways WAG can help mitigate against the rise for students who chose to study in Wales?'. Maybe, discounted fees or a grant of some sort, basing it on the assumption that WAG have made a financial, cultural and linguistic investment in these people and that they are more likely to stay in Wales and so contribute financially, culturally and linguistically to Wales if they stay here and so 'pay back' WAG's investmemt.


John Dixon said...


My views as expressed are purely my own; as neither an office holder nor a candidate for election, my aim is more about influencing debate and policy than with getting elected as an individual.

Your comment, whilst responding to the specific, also touches on a more general point, which I only really reached in the final paragraph of the post, and that is about the extent to which politicians should follow public opinion and the extent to which they should seek to lead it.

Accepting that the voters "will not vote for" x, y, or z as things stand today gives politicians a choice. Do they stop advocating x, y, and z; and instead say what they believe that voters want to hear; or do they try and persuade voters to change their minds? Do they agree with the voters to get elected; or do they try and persuade the voters that a different future is possible? For most of Plaid's history, the party has tried to do the latter; it's only since the establishment of the Assembly that the former has come into vogue.

"Going with the flow" is the easy option, but it doesn't just mean accepting the current paradigm - it effectively reinforces it, because it means that people never hear a discordant opinion.

There is also a question, on this specific issue, as to whether we express an opinion on what should happen at EnglandandWales level, or whether we should simply accept that that decision has been taken and look solely at what it means for the WAG budget. Your final paragraph suggests only doing the latter - but any party which followed that route on all issues would be offering only a very limited vision of the Wales that might be.

Anonymous said...


OK - you're right to say there's a different way and to try and persuade me. Unfortunately, you don't persuade me and I don't think you persuade the electorate. To a large extent both are related because I don't think other people will vote for this position and so I don't give it the time to contemplate in detail. What's the point?

It depends to some extent when does Plaid becomes a political party and when it's a pressure group? A person who seeks election to 'represent' people has to try and lead opinion but also follow the opinion of society which it wishes to represent. If you're always 'leading' the debate then your a pressure group or a think tank and shouldn't be surprised that you're not voted in.

In terms of policies for Wales (Assembly) and Englandandwales. Yes, this is a big one. I'd just be totally predictable and say what ever Plaid proposes needs to be credible in both context. In this respect I'd like to see Plaid advocating ways of generating income and wealth for Wales rather than protesting at 'London cuts'. Lets say, London wants to make cuts to get us out of the deficit but that Plaid believes they can get out of the deficit if Wales was to have control over natural resources, Crown property, taxation etc. It sound less whingy and moves the national agenda on wards. Complaining/campaigning against ConDem cuts is Labour's agenda and will only benefit Labour at the ballot box.


John Dixon said...


I accept that I'm failing to persuade you; that's an entirely fair response. Not sure that it means that I shouldn't keep trying though.

As to what extent Plaid should be a pressure group with a mission, or a political party aiming to form a government, I have to admit that that is an issue which has been much troubling me of late. Well, not just of late, to be honest, but it's become much more acute since the Assembly was established, because the temptation to place more emphasis on the latter has become very much greater. I'll admit that I'm not comfortable with that; perhaps I should just conclude that the problem is mine, not the party's.

At least on the issue of cuts, I think we can agree. I am worried that when Plaid spokespersons just keep parroting phrases like 'slash and burn', and 'savage', the party is not really contributing much to debate. And I agree that it just falls into the trap of following Labour's agenda.

It's not that the party isn't capable of doing better; it's more that people aren't trying hard enough. Politics needs to be about more than sloganising, particularly when the slogans are all so negative.

But here's a question - is it just possible that an increased emphasis on short term electoral politics rather than long term mission, and an increased tendency to sloganise rather than put coherent arguments, are in some way related? I have a feeling that they are - the absence of a willingness to express a coherent long term vision leaves a vacuum which encourages the other trend.

Spirit of BME said...

In the past I have spoken with Little Johnny Browne and one got a clear impression of a very focused individual but one that some members of his past employment stated was interested in headlines rather than riggor ( a contributory factor in the Gulf of Mexico spill). Threrfore ,you are right to term this as a "independant review" ,Little Johnny would see this as an important vehicle on his rehabilitation after his night time shenanigins became a career stopper in his last post.
In fairness to Little Johnny ( no pun intended) I do not know the breath of the Terms his enquiry were given ,but to my mind it does not start to address the cost issues that the HE industry faces after years of bloated income from taxpayers.In short - the party is over and HMG has decided to created a market (a good thing)and stand back to watch blood letting on a grand scale, while colleges hack themselves to bits in order to cut costs and attract cash - sorry students.