Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 26 July 2014

Tuition fees: Leave them kids alone

Trebling university fees is a cynical attempt by the coalition to punish the young and poor in favour of older, fat-cat voters. They must not succeed, argues Mark Langhammer

Students protest against tuition fees hike

The new Minister for Employment and Learning, Danny Kennedy, has been handed a difficult baptism.

Faced with a challenging budget, a slash-and-burn higher education settlement in England and students starting to exercise muscle on the streets, his choices are limited.

My union, the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL), has more than a thousand student members in teacher-training. In the past month, we have taken the temperature on the issues of fees and tuition cutbacks.

Many of our students have marched or protested. Many more were too busy. Students today are typically much more career-orientated than students in the 1960s, 1970s or 1980s.

To gain entry into teacher-training courses, most need straight 'A' grades. They are aware that, of their number, less than one in five will get a teaching job within a year of graduating. In most cases the job will be temporary.

They are also acutely aware of the unfairness of the coalition cuts in England. A fee hike of up to 300 per cent, coupled with a swingeing reduction in Government support for third-level education, is far in excess of the scale and range of cuts contemplated in any other governmental area or department.

Such aggressive proposals are seen as the polite extremism of a cabinet of millionaires. They sense consciously political choices to promote a tiered 'market' in higher education. There will be fewer, poorer students.

They predict that, as the quality of teaching becomes stretched, so will there be more 'consumer' disputes between students and their universities.

Many students see little difference in principle between a graduate tax and repayable loans (the respective positions of the NUS and the coalition Government). However, crushing fees combined with audacious cuts to teaching support smacks of the older generation punishing the young.

The record of universities in Northern Ireland in encouraging wider social access to higher education is good. Higher education funding, calculated by 'unit of resource' per student, was low by OECD standards even before the cuts. Put bluntly, we want a Rolls Royce university service, paying Fiat Punto prices.

In focus group research, we are finding an increasing inter-generational resentment. Students and young people are less likely to vote than middle-aged 'boomers' and older people.

Taking a whack at student fees and university tuition funding is read as a cynical, calibrated, political calculation. Meanwhile the NHS, used proportionately more by older folks who are likely to vote, is protected.

There are wider issues at play here. Young people find it hard to get on the housing ladder, living longer with parents, facing depressed labour markets and seeing years of cuts and deficit- reduction taking precedence over investment and growth. They watched a crisis incubated by speculative financial capitalism erupt into a banking crisis.

Yet the trillion pound bailout for the favoured sons of the City of London saw no strings attached - no Toibin transaction tax, no regulation, no separation of casino-style investment banking from utility banking - and the City free to pay ludicrous bonuses, facilitate tax evasion on an industrial scale and launder the untaxed millions of Uzbek and Russian gangsters.

Is it any wonder that students are to the fore in the imaginative 'sit-ins' of Uncut UK, drawing attention to the tax avoidance of Government efficiency czar, Sir Philip Green and to the atrocious £6bn sweetheart tax-deal offered to Vodaphone by HMRC?

With a £120bn gap of unpaid, avoided, evaded and uncollected tax, the closing of taxation loopholes and chasing tax evaders goes to the heart of why the coalition Government is punishing the young and poor over older fat cats. Cameron and Clegg really do believe the Rahm Emanuel adage: "Never waste a good crisis."

So Danny Kennedy has much to contemplate. We support him in looking at the Welsh model, but there is strong competition for his resources.

The economic case for maintaining the recent expansion of universities is weak. ATL did not support the New Labour 50 per cent target. Our productivity gap lies more in weaknesses at Level 3 and 4, not at university level.

Almost 30 per cent of graduates are overqualified for their current jobs, according to Green and Zhu (2008).

In short, the case to maintain the current number of university places on the same terms is not a special case. The Executive has yet to set a budget, but ATL would prioritise the Education Maintenance Allowance.

Universities will compete with other priorities. We should look at more part-time and fast-track degrees; a more modular approach; more distance and e-learning; more workplace learning.

We also need far more emphasis on the utilisation of skills and the demand in the productive economy. Remember: economic growth drives skills, not the other way round.

Good luck, Danny.

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