Iain Stewart–fromthehouse: Why I’ll be in voting for tuition fee plans

Students in London protest against tuition fee proposals
Students in London protest against tuition fee proposals

CLEARLY the big issue in Parliament this week is the vote on tuition fees and the other aspects of the Coalition Government’s proposals for Higher Education funding.

I thought I would use my column this month to summarise the reasons why I shall be supporting this policy.

I believe that the Government’s proposals represent a sensible approach to improving higher and further education institutions in this country and securing quality learning for students.

Before going on to explain my decision, let me set out why I reject some of the other options. In an ideal world, there would be no tuition fees, but I do not believe that this is a realistic choice today given both the financial situation we face and also the numbers of students now going to University.

Many make the point that older generations enjoyed a free university education. However, that was at a time when only around one in ten pupils went on to university. That model is no longer affordable without a large increase in general taxation. Some argue that this is what we should do, but I do not believe that would be the fairest option; as it would mean that people who do not go to university – and are not earning particularly high salaries – would subsidise those who do.

Another option would be a “graduate tax”; with graduates paying an additional amount of income tax in perpetuity. This is an option that the Government considered carefully but there are too many logistical reasons why it would not be practical. Let me cite just one; if a graduate were to move to work overseas, then they would escape paying back the cost of their education.

Therefore, we have to look at some form of direct graduate contribution and the most equitable means of arranging that. I would emphasis the following about our plans:

1. There will be no up-front tuition fees.

2. It is incorrect to state that the Coalition Government is proposing to remove the cap for university tuition fees. That was a recommendation of the Browne Review, commissioned by the previous Labour Government to review the tuition fees policy which it introduced in the Higher Education Act 2004. However, the Coalition Government’s proposals are to raise the cap ordinarily to £6,000 per annum, but with the option for individual universities to charge up to £9,000 per annum provided they introduce additional measures to attract and support students from lower-earning families.

3. I contest the assertion often made that the proposals are detrimental to students from a poorer background. In addition to the requirement for universities charging up to £9,000 per annum to widen access, the Government is proposing: a new £150m National Scholarships Programme to be targeted at bright potential students from poor background, guaranteeing students benefits such as a free first year or foundation year; students from families with incomes of up to £25,000 to be entitled to a more generous student maintenance grant of up to £3,250 and those from families with incomes up to £42,000 to be entitled to a partial grant.

4. Locally, the proposals to make the higher and further education sectors more flexible will directly benefit both UCMK and the Open University, as will the plans for the first time to make part-time students eligible for the same support as full-time students. I understand that both institutions warmly welcome these proposals. On a more general point, it is important that both the higher and further education sectors are more flexible in order to respond to the needs of the economy. While a traditional three year, campus based, undergraduate course will remain the cornerstone of higher education, I strongly believe that it is important to develop a wider range of options for students in order that they can receive the most appropriate form of post-school education and training.

5. I do not believe it is correct to allege that the Government’s proposals mean that a university education will not be open to all based on ability. They are progressive, with higher earners effectively subsidising the rate of interest for lower earners. Tuition fees and maintenance grants only become repayable after a student graduates and starts earning more than £21,000 – up from the £15,000 level introduced by the last Labour Government.

6. While the total borrowings by students will be much higher than at present, it is spread over many years with a lower average monthly repayment than at present. Moreover, it is not a conventional debt like a mortgage or a credit card borrowing in that, should individual circumstances change, repayments will stop and, eventually, be waived.

I hope this clarifies why I feel able to vote for the Government’s proposals.

To contact Iain people can call 01908 686830, email iain.stewart.mp@parliament.uk or write to House of Commons, London, SW1A 0AA.