Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Clegg to students: c'mon and see "the true picture"

Nick Clegg continues to dismiss student anger at his party's apparent support of measures to increase the cap on university student fees from about £3,200 per year to £9,000 per year by saying that they should scrap a further national strike today and see "the true picture" whereby many will be "better off". He believes students -- especially those from poorer backgrounds -- should support the government's proposals as there is nothing to pay up front and nothing to pay post-graduation until students earn at least £21,000. (Allegedly, this £21,000 - in 2016 - is equivalent to £18,000 today.)

I believe students are correct to oppose these plans for many reasons, although I will not rehearse much of what has already been said. There is something curious about arguing that austerity measures are necessary to reduce the nation's debt because it is bad for the country's future . . . and then shift debts to university students who will now have significant debts of £27,000 for fees and perhaps another £20,000 in housing/living expenses over three years. If increasing debts are bad for the country's future, then it is curious that the government is explicitly increasing the personal debts of the country's future, namely, its university graduates.

Some may argue that the higher education sector is unsustainable at current levels. An answer to this is to make the argument to the public that we are all better off with investment in higher education. A higher skilled workforce is necessary for global competition. Yes, university students may be more likely to earn higher incomes, but higher incomes mean higher taxes paid: we all benefit from the skills and higher tax receipts.

Some may argue that those who benefit should pay. If so, we all benefit in having a more competitive work force that is more highly skilled and a work foce that pays a higher share of tax. Why should someone on low income support university students from more affluent backgrounds? One reason is that the student will pay more tax that will help provide better services for all. Higher education is a public good. Besides, the tax paid by those on lower incomes that go to universities is actually quite small -- so the argumet is very spurious. Note how those who make such claims never argue that it is wrong for childless couples on lower incomes to support local schools accessible for all. Or for immigrants without family in the country to support meals on wheels programmes.

The "true picture" is that the public were promised "no more broken promises" by Mr Clegg: he was going to be a politician who stuck to his convictions . . . or at least until the party had its first chance in a generation to enter government. The problem with claiming to be on higher ground is that it makes it more perilous to compromise without risking significant losses amongst supporters (a problem Republican candidates often face in the US).

Liberal Democrat support has fallen to a miserly 10% in recent weeks and we should expect this to dwindle further still. This is "the true picture" that Mr Clegg should be more interested in.

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