The Browne review on Higher Education, which was published today and you can read a summary of here, has generated some very gloomy headlines. Not from the Sun, who haven’t covered the Browne review at all, and have chosen to go with a expose on the working conditions of lap-dancers at Stringfellows, but most other papers are marking the end of the publicly funded degree, the saddling of students with tens of thousands of pounds of debt before they even begin their working life, and the potential inequality of “elite” (i.e. Oxbridge) charging far more for their degrees than the likes of former polytechnics like Anglia Ruskin.

Actually, “Securing a Sustainable Future for Higher Education”, as the full report is actually entitled, is rather well developed. The removal of the cap on the amount an institution can charge for courses entirely is pretty devastating for anyone who’s ever dreamed of being debt-free, but if you agree to the premise of paying for education, what’s the difference between paying back £21,000 over 25 years and £30,000 over 30? The threshold at which you start to pay back your tuition fees will be raised to £21,000 a year – given the average wage in the country is £22-24,000 a year that means that most poor students who go to university will in effect get a free education. The support universities receive from the government will taper off as they charge more than £6000, effectively disincentivising all but the most successful universities from charging more than this (Oxford graduates are screwed, in other words, but at least it means that we will one day have a Prime Minister who will probably still be paying off their student loan while in office). The report says, “Our recommendations place more of the burden of funding on graduates, but they contribute only when they can afford to repay the costs financed. Students do not pay charges, only graduates do; and then only if they are successful. The system of payments is highly progressive.” For a government that is about to force 250,000 people to leave London by cutting housing benefit, that’s quite good.

The Browne review also spent some time explaining why the concept of a graduate tax is stupid, unequal, unfair and generally a child only NUS paperpushers who received a free education because they graduated in 2006 could love. Pg 52 of the report sums it up best:

“…even low earning graduates would have to pay a graduate tax. In our proposals, graduates pay nothing until they are earning above £21,000 per year. A graduate tax may begin at the income tax threshold, which is £6,475. Higher earning graduates would be required to pay several multiples of the actual costs of their course. Modelling suggests that a 3% graduate tax over the first 25 years after graduation would result in the highest earning graduates paying ca. £55k (the bulk of three-year courses cost in the range of £18k-£21k). Graduates will keep paying for as long as they are earning above the income tax threshold. In addition to this, most graduates will also repay debt incurred for living costs while studying.”

So basically, the NUS has been actively arguing for graduates who are successful, regardless of whether this success was related to their degree or not, should be paying the equivalent of £18000 a year fees anyway. Thanks for that, NUS. I will grant that the NUS Blueprint, a summary of which is available here, does argue for a threshold of £15,000 before the tax is imposed, and a maximum length of 20 years of repayment, but artificial limits (also known as “safeguards”, “red lines”, “sweeteners”, or “inadequate sops to get the otherwise skeptical masses to agree with you”), as the Browne review itself has today demonstrated, are oh-so-easily raised or removed by another decision later on. The NUS Blueprint, in essence, isn’t worth the pixels it’s displayed on. Lord Browne also points out that a graduate tax would take 25 years to implement, with the government picking up the costs in the meantime through the student finance system, which fails totally to deal with the funding hole in education anyway.

One thing that really did need reviewing was government support for those enrolling on part-time degrees. The drop-out rate increases in part-time education the lower the intensity of the course, which means the amount of time you spend on the course a week (presumably because people don’t take it seriously, though this was not explained in the report). Because students who drop out would never have to repay their student loans under the new system, Lord Browne recommends that finance for part-time higher education begins for courses at a third of the intensity level for a full-time degree (so, two contact hours a week? Lol). It’s an innovative idea, and I’m not sure how that would work out in practice, but it is really good news for part-time students, particularly those who might be part-time because of disability or caring responsibilities and who can’t pay for courses upfront.

Overall the Browne review is pretty thorough, costed, and well-written – but only if you believe education has to be paid for by its recipient. Only the most hardcore capitalists of the Tory party would argue for an end to universal free primary and secondary education, but everyone seems to buy into the premise that tertiary education is somehow different. What is the difference? Higher and further education and apprenticeships benefit the individual and also the communities in which they live. Why do we try to inculcate a love of learning for its own sake at school and then commoditise it at college? From a more mercenary perspective, is it not a good idea to equip student with skills they can use in the workplace?

In 2006, the government was spending £6.5 billion a year on subsidising higher education.[1] To go back to a system of free education up to masters level for a first degree, the government would need to find an extra £3 billion a year (c.f. the Browne report itself, pg 51). Perhaps this seems a large number but I can only ask: is that IT? £10 billion was conjured up for the recently cancelled National Identity Register and Identity Card Scheme. Philip Green announced yesterday that we could save £20 billion on renegotiating supply contracts with government departments. Perhaps if we stopped building prisons and jailing ever more people at a cost of £31,000 a year to the taxpayer,[2] we could send kids to uni for only £21,000 a year. The money is there, if only we had the will to find it.

My Facebook feed is filled with people outraged at the suggestion that fees be uncapped and the average charge will go up to £6000 a year – but I honestly can’t see what the difference is between struggling with a debt of £3000 a year or a fee of £6000 a year if you’re paying it off at 9% of salary a year regardless. No-one is realistically going to notice the difference over their lifetime unless they keep really good accounts – which is of course why the original tuition fees were only £1000, then raised, then raised further, so that at every step of the way people got used to having to pay for what was once free to all. The NUS is whining about the debts graduates will face in 2015, but what about the debts that students graduating in 2011 will face? We lost the argument when fees were imposed, but instead of continuing to make the case for a consistent policy of free education up to a first undergraduate degree (which Australian students managed to achieve in 1974), we’re just quietly asking the government not to charge us as much. That’s pathetic, and it’s unsurprising that the government didn’t listen.

So I will be at the London demonstration on the 10th November, but you shouldn’t kid yourselves that it will achieve anything tangible as long as we ask for a slightly less heavy debt burden instead of demanding it be removed altogether.

* Securing a Sustainable Future for High Education – the full Browne Report.
* NUS Blueprint of Stupidity.

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