Over the period of the current Parliament, the cost of tuition in Higher Education has been a big issue. So much so, that November 19th saw what was aimed to be one of the largest student protests in Europe. This was all in the sake of free education. I have always backed free education, but I believe that we need to frame the issue within perspective that aligns with current circumstances. Whilst I believe that university and college education should be free and accessible, I do think two things:
1. A gradual approach and considered is needed. Scrapping tuition fees on 9th May 2015 would not be feasible.
2. Free education is far from enough. Never mind the tuition fees; some cannot afford to get into college and others cannot even afford their rent let alone buying textbooks or a Starbucks at lunchtime.
Scrapping tuition fees straight away would not only be unfeasible, but wrong. As it stands, we are in deficit. I know many arguments, including claiming back all the taxes dodged and scrapping Trident; these are also costly processes, not to mention the amount of time taken to not only decommission four submarines, 160 warheads and 58 missiles, but to also claw back billions of pounds of taxes from individuals and corporations. Rome wasn’t built in a day and nor will the public purse. To clarify - this isn’t to say that clawing back dodged taxes shouldn’t be done, it’s saying that nobody will be able to pay a huge tax bill in one go. It would take years to do so.
The best way a Labour government would tackle the issue, is to examine current students trapped in the fees system. Introducing partial waivers, where both maintenance and tuition fee loan repayments are reduced and capping interest would be of big help to students and graduates. Current interest rates are RPI + 3%, a fairer alternative could include a 1.5% interest rate or even zero for those from lower income backgrounds/ those likely to face the oppressive pay gaps. Tuition fees could then be reduced for successive students incrementally until they reach zero, using January 2004 (£3,000) and post 1998 (£1,000) values as benchmarks. Universities should also be offered tax breaks and guaranteed research incentives in return for charging students less than the set cap. This would be a fairer way than introducing free education at a time where money can barely be put towards the NHS, let alone funding courses.
As it stands the NHS currently funds the education and training of doctors, dentists and nurses, through the NHS Bursary scheme. An important step towards introducing a fairer funding system for all would be to scrap the NHS Bursary and to transfer responsibility for funding to the Student Loans Company for healthcare students too. This removes the current two tier system that’s in place now amongst university and college students and redirects NHS money which could potentially be split up between Primary Care Trusts and re-invested into providing services.
Vocational FE Students:
It’s been long standing tradition for a vocational student in college to try out their trade in the classroom. Catering students generally cook in the college restaurant while Hair and Beauty students work in a college salon. College salons and restaurants have long been a preserve for penny pinchers looking to score a cheap meal or haircut for the month. They’re also lucrative money spinners for colleges who have them. The sad thing being that these students are often not paid for their efforts, or at the bare minimum - have their equipment and course materials subsidised by the college.
Student Finance England:
The maximum amount of support a student living away from home in London can claim is £8,009 (courses from September 2015), while the average rent for halls of residence is well over £11,000. The main priority should be ensuring that a support package actually covers the cost of a student’s living and assumptions aren’t made upon parental contributions. LGBT students are at a particular disadvantage, with the difficulties faced in claiming estrangement. Student Finance England’s reluctance to assess an individual; individually poses a barrier to LGBT students who aspire towards completing Higher Education and severely impacts on their welfare.
Currently, student finance is administered by the four nations in the UK independently. In order to begin a step-by-step process to address education funding a single body would need to be created to administer funding and a single funding regime which applies across the UK would need to be adapted.
Don’t bring back EMA:
Hardship funds are desperately lacking in colleges, where Further Education is one of the most accessible routes to education - particularly for parents, workers and other disadvantaged groups. It would be appreciated if a set standard on how college hardship funds should be administered were drafted up and a boost were delivered to these funds to colleges throughout. I’ve seen first hand of a Further Education college struggling to give hardship funds to those in need. Situations so dire that the next day walking past the student union office to see posters from the Harrow Foodbank. Months later a friend of mine dropped out of her course because the hardship fund could simply not accommodate her.
Instead local authorities should issue FE students with free bus travel in local areas. Closer to home in London, the Mayor of London should be extending the free bus and tram franchise to all FE students, not just to those under 18.
Above and Beyond:
Last month’s autumn statement left me reeling in laughter. I mentioned previously of proposals for postgraduate funding which you can find here. It was as haphazard and desperate as the decision to raise undergraduate tuition fees in the first place. A strong focus on professional/vocational postgraduate qualifications should be considered as opposed to taught/research masters degrees. Qualifications such as the LPC and PGCE which get people into a defined path towards employment has sadly been missed out in current proposals. Maintenance should be looked into for postgraduate students.