Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Scrap university tuition fees

It is time for another of my periodic rants on tuition fees. I was at a very enjoyable lunch at Westcliff Rugby Club on Saturday which was followed by an entertaining but, for the purposes of WRC, disappointing match with the away team ending up clear winners. Over lunch the Managing Partner of one of the leading accountancy firms in the town was discussing recruitment and how for accountants there remains the option of taking suitable recruits straight from school. Unfortunately this is not a viable option for solicitors where the expectation is that applicants will have either a law or other degree followed by the current solicitors final exams (known as the LPC) before starting a 2 year term as a trainee solicitor with a firm eventually resulting in qualification. There are ways of slightly shortcutting the process but the reality is that most applicants will have to navigate their law degree and possible also LPC before attempting to find a rare training contract and will by that time be burdened by the significant debt which is loaded on the majority of our graduates these days. I am in no doubt that this process deters many from less well off backgrounds who will not have the benefit of parental financial support and cannot face the mountain of debt and inevitable uncertainty they will face. This is simply not doing all we as a society should be doing to ensure opportunity for all, dependent on ability and not family financial resources. Whist the position in the law is accentuated by the LPC course and the 2 year training contract a similar challenge faces potential students in a range of other careers and is a far cry from the opportunities and support available when I was at that stage of my education. I had the benefit of no tuition fees and a full maintenance grant from Essex County Council to cover my degree and solicitors finals course. Living in a loving but financially stretched 1 parent family in rented accommodation I would simply not have been able to qualify without that support from my local community. How can it be right to burden our young people with debt, much of which will in any event never be repaid? How does this fit with concerns as to the levels of personal debt which many people now routinely accumulate? Labour introduced tuition fees without any electoral mandate (it was not in their manifesto) and having let the genie out of the bottle it becomes difficult to reverse it, particularly when linked as it was to an uncontrolled growth in university courses and numbers and, in my view, the disastrous decision to eliminate the distinction between universities and polytechnics. The coalition has only made the situation worse and don’t even get me started on the Lib Dems who on this issue have done so much to damage the credibility of national politicians with student voters. I remain of the view that tuition fees need to go. We should review the provision of further education in this county to better reflect the aspirations of our young people and the needs of business and of our society. If we are encouraging those who are able to do so to enjoy a uni career, then we should recognise that if the system is properly coordinated we should be helping them achieve well paid jobs which will result in them repaying our investment in tax over the coming years, or leading to a career which will operate to our direct benefit as a society. In either circumstance we should be prepared to fund it. As it is our students still need to fund their accommodation and living expenses but at least these are things over which they have an element of control. I think our young people have had a rough ride over the last 20 years or so and it is time we started doing something about it. I can think of no better starting point than tuition fees.


  1. Of course, if you scrap tuition fees you will have to find the money from somewhere else.

  2. You are of course right. As I alluded to in my item this is the problem when a revenue generating measure is introduced. It is far harder to withdraw it than not to introduce it in the first place, It is similar to the explosion of council delivered services under the last Labour government some of which were not financially sustainable. Having introduced a service it is hard to withdraw it. In the case of tuition fees my view is that the cost must be found. Based on the current information as to the large % of student loans which will never be repaid the cost needs to be considered in actual cost. We also need to review other aspects of funded further education delivery. In some courses(particularly the arts) it would be possible by increasing the number of weekly contact hours and term lengths to significantly reduce the length of courses and resulting costs. At present there is an irony in the fact that to a degree those students who complete a course which enables then to find employment are subsidising those students who take a course supported by loans where the employment prospects are less certain or non existent.