Wednesday, July 21, 2010

NUS wastes opportunity to defend students in Browne Review submission

By Sam Browse, Sheffield University

Last month, the NUS President, Aaron Porter, was invited to present students’ case to the Browne Review of higher education funding – alongside representatives from universities, government, business and others including the Universities and Colleges Union (UCU).

This was a key opportunity for the student movement to influence the debate over whether or not the financial burden on university students should be lowered or increased. At a time when Vice Chancellors and big business are aggressively lobbying for higher fees of £7,000, it was crucial that the NUS President clearly articulated a strong defence of students to those responsible for recommending changes to the higher education funding system. Sadly, this opportunity was completely wasted. You can watch Aaron Porter’s presentation online here.

The submission of NUS to the funding review – the Funding our Future blueprint – calls for a graduate tax. Far from being the ‘holistic vision’ Porter claims the NUS blueprint to be, it argues that the HE funding gap should be bridged by one source – students. Notably, the NUS leadership boasts of the increased student contribution their graduate tax would entail (Funding our Future blueprint, p.4). The NUS wants students to pay more, not less, for their education.

This was reflected in Porter’s verbal evidence to the review panel. When the NUS President was asked ‘what should students expect if the cost of education to the student rises’ instead of stridently defending students from an increase in fees, he emphasized universities providing a better ‘deal’ for students through skills and employability training and greater course choices.

In a recent Observer article, Porter said ‘there are some that think we should stick to the principled position of free education. But if vice-chancellors expect us to stand on the outside waving placards they are sorely mistaken’. This argument bares little relation to reality given the fact that the UCU - an organization representing university and college lecturers across the country - supports the abolition of all tuition fees.

The position of NUS is put into stark relief when compared to that of the UCU, outlined by the general secretary, Sally Hunt, as part of the same review process. Hunt rightly points out that the UK spends 10% less than the global average of its GDP on its HE sector. She said: ‘UK employers spend just 1.3% of total labour costs on education and training – 24% less than the EU average of 1.6%’. Comparatively, she argues, British business has ‘a good deal’.

Hunt argues that one of the main barriers to delivering a quality HE system is under funding. The immediate question is how to bridge the funding gap. Contrary to Porter, who says that ‘[NUS] don’t necessarily believe the structure of the funding system should be a driver to quality’, she suggests that the tuition fee system is ‘highly inefficient’ as well as ‘socially inequitable and politically unpopular’.

Instead, the UCU propose raising the main rate of corporation tax from 28p, to the G7 average of 32.87p. Conversely, NUS propose increasing the levy on students. The difference is quite remarkable given NUS’s aim to protect the interests of its membership.

The corporate sector’s comparatively small contribution to the cost of higher education suggests that NUS’s proposal to increase the cost to students is hardly ‘fair and proportionate’, as is claimed in the evidence to the review. We need a strong, principled alliance inside and outside NUS to provide an alternative to the leadership’s regressive funding blueprint. Contrary to NUS’s current position, we should join the UCU in explicitly calling for increased public investment in a free higher education system.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Universities need investment not cuts

Universities need investment not cuts. Raising student charges - through higher fees or a graduate tax - will neither solve the university funding crisis nor widen the access to higher education the wider economy needs.

Check out Bellavia Ribeiro-Addy's Guardian Comment is free piece:

NUS should focus on reducing the burden on students – not increasing it

Students today demanded that NUS calls for reductions in the costs of going to university and end its' support for even higher student charges.

Kanja Sesay, NUS Black Students’ Officer alongside Fiona Edwards, Secretary of the Free Education Campaign said:

“In recent days student funding has been at the top of the political agenda.

Sadly the debate has been totally one sided - focusing almost exclusively on how to make people pay even more for a university education.

On the one hand, Vince Cable seems to favour making people pay more through a graduate tax, whilst others in the government seem to back higher fees.

With student debt already soaring to £23,000, the idea that students should pay even more is absurd.

We need a serious debate about reducing the burden on students – not one looking at the best ways to increase the costs.

NUS needs to lead this debate. Instead it has ‘welcomed’ Vince Cable’s backing for a graduate tax to replace student top-up fees. This is totally the wrong path to be going down and it needs to change tack.”

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Free Education Campaign’s Immediate Response to Vince Cable’s Call for a Graduate Tax

Today Vince Cable has said that the Coalition government is looking at charging students more for higher education via a graduate tax.

Any system that sees higher charges should be opposed.

The Free Education Campaign agrees with UCU response that new plans for university funding should be judged on whether they “increase the overall cost of getting an education or reduce it.”

We also share the UCU’s view that Cable’s moves to support a graduate tax instead of fees are “an exercise in rebranding.”

In making clear opposition to a graduate tax that burdens students with even higher debts the Free Education Campaign believes it is important to note that:

• Since 1998 – the year tuition fees were first introduced - the UK participation rate for higher education fell from 7th in the OECD countries to 15th. That is the dismal record of charging students for higher education since 1998.

• Since the introduction of top up fees in 2004 despite there being an increase in the number of people attending university the number of people from poorer areas attending has dropped by 0.3% (figures from 2008).

• The current failing system is already some form of gradate tax, as Vince Cable rightly points out. Students currently pay back their fees upon graduate (though they can choose to pay in advance if they desire). The Student Loan Company “expect students to repay 9% of annual income over £15,000.” This effectively means that graduates currently pay a higher tax rate because they went to university.

• A Graduate Tax could result in the unjust and ridiculous situation where graduates on lower incomes pay a higher rate of tax than higher earners who happened not to have attended university.

• It undermines the basic principle that it is those most able to pay who should contribute most to public services. Instead it is a step down a dangerous path towards a "user pays" principle which could also be applied to other public services.

• David Willetts recently remarked that university students are “a burden on the taxpayer”, ignoring the net contribution universities make to the economy. Far from a burden, the higher education sector as a whole is of huge economic benefit to Britain. According to the previous government the £23 billion annually invested in higher education produced an economic return of £60 billion. In addition to this immediate return there are also long term benefits through higher productivity and a more skilled population. Ways that restrict access - as charging students even more would - will only undermine this.

• Greater state investment in free higher education would be good for students, society and the economy. The ongoing review into higher education funding should recommend lowering the financial burden on students, not increasing it.