Amid intense media intention, as well as speculation about the likely ramifications, Business Secretary Vince Cable has announced a “revolutionary” blueprint for Higher Education (HE) in which there would be the potential to introduce quotas to ensure greater inclusion for pupils of state schools, higher-earning graduates would pay additional tax to fund degree courses and struggling universities would be allowed to fail.
Already dubbed the “graduate tax”, Dr Cable’s proposals have pre-empted the outcome of the Browne Commission, which is currently engaged in reviewing the arrangements for student finance. This in itself is regrettable, and allows the plans to be seen as little more than the political manoeuvrings of a party anxious to demonstrate to its members and the public that it has distinctive proposals on HE funding which are both progressive and realistic.
The media has so far been reasonably unfriendly towards Dr Cable’s plans. While I was personally surprised by the timing of the announcement – and unhappy not only at the way in which the findings of the Browne Commission were pre-empted but also at the lack of open dialogue within the party in advance of Cable’s pronouncement – I have also found myself taken aback by basis of media opposition, which appears to be founded on uninformed assumptions that the status quo is either sustainable or desirable.
So what exactly has Vince Cable proposed? How does he plan to “revolutionise” HE and what are the alternatives? Are his plans “liberal” and consistent with our party’s historic position towards HE; more pertinently, are they fair?
Firstly, let’s take a look at the positives. Dr Cable has put forward an agenda that is certainly radical. He is looking at doing things differently. In his speech (to an audience of vice-chancellors in London, I should add) Cable demonstrated the courage to challenge conventional wisdom, especially in relation to three year degrees (something I have always questioned), the divide between further and higher education and the previous government’s attitude towards student numbers. This was all welcome stuff, and something most Liberal Democrats would have little difficulty with.
I will come to the detail of the “graduate tax” shortly, but in highlighting the inefficiencies, wastefulness and unfairness of the current system (as it stands in England and Wales) he was utterly correct. He was also right to talk about what he considers to be “the looming crisis”. Here is not a government minister willing either to play the “blame game” or to optimistically speak up HE prospects, but one who recognises the near-impossible realities facing HE and the need to find urgent solutions. Cable spoke of “deep cuts” which would lead not only to consolidation but contraction, the need “to do more with less” and the potential need for increasing student contributions. He admitted that “there will probably be less funding per student ...future spending has to be adjusted accordingly”. It was a brave thing to tell an audience of vice-chancellors.
What can be said for certain is that the status quo is that is unworkable and unsustainable in the long-term. As Cable suggested, and the party outlined in its election manefesto, the 50% target of the Labour government must be scrapped. The emphasis on raw targets and the view of education as the preserve of universities must be challenged. Labour’s experiment was not only expensive, but failed to tackle inequalities and increase social mobility. Its long-term legacy is one of graduates finding their qualification is a dud investment and a passport to nowhere. The target-driven approach was so narrow in its interpretation of positive educational outcomes that universities have essentially become mere production lines for suitably “qualified” but ill-equipped and ill-served graduates. In the process, degrees have become devalued and the three years spent at university – an experience that once passed for education – has become in many cases little more than an opportunity for social networking. This is a tragic legacy of a deeply flawed and ill-conceived Labour initiative that failed to appreciate how best to reform the educational system to maximise access. Throwing more public money at HE was never the responsible solution.
The current funding system is by nature expensive and, given the current financial situation, unsustainably so. It naturally increases short-term public spending and the public purse can not continue to subsidise current levels of investment in HE. To Cable’s credit, he doesn’t find solutions merely in efficiency savings but in advocating radical reform. And he is attempting to unveil something that is not only fiscally responsible but fair and socially just. This is why he wants to remove the upfront debts: price tags which act as both a psychological and material deterrent to many. As a one-time medical student who was effectively forced to withdraw from my studies and abandon what would otherwise have been realistic ambitions for a medical career due to receiving no support and having to cough up for my fees in advance (the product of an inflexible system that penalises against those who wish to change career but who have already studied for a degree), I would wholeheartedly embrace the thrust of Cable’s vision as well as his attempt to inject some realism into the debate.
As ever, the devil is in the detail. And it’s the detail of Cable’s alternative proposal that concerns me, not his recognition of the need for one. Of course, this is not yet government policy and Cable only suggests that it “should be considered” but he is clearly attempting to steer Browne in a particular direction.
I respect Cable’s genuine desire to move towards a more inclusive system of HE, but I have concerns with his chosen remedy. Firstly, as a very basic level Cable has been too keen to focus almost exclusively on the system of funding rather than consider the broader challenges facing the wider educational system. Even “revolutionary” shifts in how HE is funded would not it themselves change the emphasis, intransigence and culture of how education is delivered and therefore would be incapable of addressing the wider problems at the heart of the matter.
In proposing quotas for state school pupils, Cable is looking to take long overdue action. Dr Cable’s diagnosis is correct – children from poorer homes are seven times less likely to go to university than their wealthier counterparts – although the prescription is the wrong one. Widening access to leading universities must be a key objective for any incoming government. However, this is simplistic and reserving places for those from the state sector could prove counter-productive. Moreover, it obscures the real issue: that of supporting less well-off students to study and equipping them with the necessary skills prior to studying at HE institutions. There are more socially responsible and further-reaching methods of boosting participation, but these need to be carefully implemented in co-operation with schools and further education (FE) establishments.
This paternalistic approach is hardly “liberal”. It will require further centralising of power and removes autonomy from the institutions, conflicting with Cable’s statement that “we in government must respect universities’ independence”. If this could be demonstrably proven to genuinely widen access to education, I would withdraw my objections on the basis that the greater good was being achieved. However, I see the quota as simply a backward step and an idea devoid of imagination unlikely to deliver the desired outcome. It fails to appreciate that it is not simply the HE funding system that fails the poorest members of our society. Other factors appear not to have been considered.
The “graduate tax” is Cable’s most radical proposal and one which we has been keen to defend as “progressive” and “fair”. He wants to move away from loans and fees and replace them with a “contribution” based on earnings. He admits his plans to create “a larger graduate contribution…is only part of the solution and there will still be severe financial pressures in the next few years” but believes that it is vital “that low graduate earners pay no more (or less) and high earners pay more”.
Cable is at pains to argue a graduate tax would be fair. In arguing that the current system of tuition fees amounts to a “poll tax”, he asserts that “it surely can’t be right that a teacher or care worker or research scientist is expected to pay the same graduate contribution as a top commercial lawyer or surgeon or City analyst whose graduate premium is so much bigger.” It appears a fair principle: that those who benefit most should pay a higher contribution.
However, Cable’s “graduate tax” is seriously flawed and less than “fair”. For a start, it makes the unreasonable assumption that graduates are the sole “beneficiaries” of their training and qualifications. This is patently untrue and a brutally simplistic defense of the policy. Secondly, it raises further, unanswered questions, about how the individual universities are to be funded once the link with fees is abolished – how will the revenue raised from a graduate tax be apportioned? As those graduating from the leading universities invariably earn more, it isn’t unrealistic to assume they will be also the leading beneficiaries while others are left behind. Thirdly, I would be concerned that this sets a dangerous precedent; if particular groups are taxed over and above general taxation to repay benefits – either perceived or real – where do we draw the line? In fairness, graduates earning the salaries Dr Cable discussed are making more than sizable contributions. Why should they be further penalised? Fourthly, it raises serious questions about retrospective payments, especially in relation to those, like myself, who have already paid fees. And, crucially, it goes against the grain of long-help party policy on the issue.
A possible ramification of a “graduate tax” would be the very thing Dr Cable is keen to tackle: the potential to discourage future graduates. It would also create further (and unnecessary) bureaucracy and inevitably more state control of the HE system. Is this really what Dr Cable wants?
I would also be critical of the “graduate tax” proposals as they assume, uncorrectly, that academic ability is inherently superior to non-academic achievement. In this respect, it is as short-sighted as Labour’s approach which viewed university education as an end in itself, the be-all-and-end-all. It also ignores the fact that many non-graduates earn far more than those of us with degrees. At a time when the very value of degrees is being debated, Dr Cable’s conclusions seem somewhat perverse.
The “graduate tax” might work better than the status quo for people like me, whose own career ambitions were derailed by the current system. But that alone shouldn’t be enough to either recommend it or gloss over the fact that it is by nature discriminatory. Graduates would not be paying for their degrees but their subsequent career success. It would be completely unfit for purpose.
Cable’s realistic appreciations of the current challenges facing HE must be matched with a sensible and equally realistic long-term approach. A future government approach to education needs to facilitate inclusivity while recognizing that academic study isn’t for everyone; the 50% target was always unrealistic and reducing HE student numbers is an obvious way to cut expenditure. I for one would support this on the condition that alternative, ongoing educational provision is created by strengthening the role and purpose of FE establishments and investigating ways in which vocational training can be better encouraged. New thinking on apprenticeships would be a key part of a new approach. “Lifelong learning” has to become more than a failed Labour buzzword, and alternative routes to meaningful education should be promoted in addition to university degree courses which are themselves often unable to prepare graduates for the world of work.
As for the key issue of funding, rather than experiment with new and untried ideas, Dr Cable would have been better advised to look northwards. While the system here in Scotland is not perfect, it is certainly fairer and more progressive than both the current system in England and Wales and the “graduate tax”. The Cubie Commission, acting independently of the Scottish parliament, published a report into the future funding of HE which eleven years later contains pertinent and relevant principles. While it was clearly concerned with exclusively Scottish HE provision and admittedly the economic climate is somewhat different from 1999, sound principles are sound principles and I would like to see Scotland’s funding arrangements at least considered in a UK context.
The problem for Vince Cable, and for the Lib Dems in government, is that the party has made the actual abolition of tuition fees so super-significant an objective. In our General Election manifesto, the party pledged to scrap fees in order to save students over £10,000. It did not pledge to scrap them to create a graduate tax. It would appear that in order to sweeten the party, Cable is willing to propose anything than can be construed as a victory for anti-fees activists – even if that involves graduates being subjected to a taxation that will follow them for the rest of their working lives.
Abandonment of tuition fees at any cost can not be allowed to become an end in itself. It is understandable that our colleagues in government wish to set a distinctive policy agenda, but a “graduate tax” is neither true to our historical position on the matter nor likely to achieve our firmly held objectives of a liberal and socially just HE system. The way forward involves moving away from entrenched positions, asking questions about the kind of HE and FE education Britain deserves and how to achieve it. A new approach facilitating education for all, empowering individuals to fulfil their potential both within and outside the HE structure, needs to be found in accordance with need and affordabilty. Instead of focusing on tuition fees, Dr Cable and the government should be examining how to develop a new, fair, innovative, inclusive, integrated and socially just education system. In respect to this challenge, the “graduate tax” proposals are little more than an unhelpful distraction.