Even more universities join the £9,000 club

Remember when ministers promised £9,000 fees would be "exceptional"?

However much they may now deny it, Tory and Lib Dem ministers said that universities would only charge tuition fees of £9,000 in "exceptional circumstances". Here's the relevant quote from Vince Cable, who has curiously escaped blame for the debacle, despite being the minister responsible.

For the funding of universities, Lord Browne recommended- in a report that the then Labour Government endorsed, I think, in their manifesto- that there should be no cap on university fees and a specific proposal for a clawback mechanism that gave universities an incentive to introduce fees of up to a level of £15,000 a year. That was the report given to the Government. We have rejected those recommendations and proposed instead that we proceed as the statutory instrument describes. That involves the introduction of a fee cap of £6,000, rising to £9,000 in exceptional circumstances.

Vince Cable, House of Commons, 9 December 2010

We learn today that three-quarters of English universities will charge £9,000 for at least some courses next year, with a third charging the maximum fee for all. The average annual tuition fee for students will rise to £8,615, up from £8,527 in 2012-13. Ministers, who naïvely claimed that the new regime would put institutions under "competitive pressure" to cut fees, promised an average charge of £7,500. But the tripling of  the cap (in breach of that famous Lib Dem election pledge) actually had the predictable effect of encouraging universities to charge more in order to appear "reassuringly expensive".

But it isn't just the politics of this that are bad for ministers, the finances aren't good either. Nick Clegg may have claimed that the rise in fees was a necessary part of the coalition's deficit reduction strategy, but the truth is that the reforms will cost the government more, not less. The new fees come into effect this year, which means repayments won't kick in until 2015 for a three-year course. In the intervening period, the government will be forced to pay out huge amounts in maintenance loans and tuition-fee loans.

Had universities only charged £9,000 in "exceptional circumstances", that wouldn't have been a problem. But since so many plan to charge full whack, the coalition's reforms face a £1bn black hole. Figures from the House of Commons Library showed that if the average fee is £8,600 (it is now £8,615), the state will need have to spend £960m more over the next four years. That could mean even bigger cuts to the teaching budget (already experiencing an 80 per cent cut) and/or fewer university places.

There's a strong chance that the funding gap will be even larger than I've suggested. The Treasury is already resigned to losing £1bn of the £3bn it pays out in student loans due to graduates moving abroad or earning wages under the new repayment threshold of £21,000 a year. But should graduate earnings increase by 3.75 per cent a year instead of 4.47 per cent  (and they're falling at the moment), the government's assumed savings will be wiped out completely. Tuition fees, as ministers will discover, are neither socially just nor fiscally responsible.

Three-quarters of universities plan to charge £9,000 for some courses. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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The government needs more on airports than just Chris Grayling's hunch

This disastrous plan to expand Heathrow will fail, vows Tom Brake. 

I ought to stop being surprised by Theresa May’s decision making. After all, in her short time as Prime Minister she has made a series of terrible decisions. First, we had Chief Buffoon, Boris Johnson appointed as Foreign Secretary to represent the United Kingdom around the world. Then May, announced full steam ahead with the most extreme version of Brexit, causing mass economic uncertainty before we’ve even begun negotiations with the EU. And now we have the announcement that expansion of Heathrow Airport, in the form of a third runway, will go ahead: a colossally expensive, environmentally disastrous, and ill-advised decision.

In the House of Commons on Tuesday, I asked Transport Secretary Chris Grayling why the government is “disregarding widespread hostility and bulldozing through a third runway, which will inflict crippling noise, significant climate change effects, health-damaging air pollution and catastrophic congestion on a million Londoners.” His response was nothing more than “because we don’t believe it’s going to do those things.”

I find this astonishing. It appears that the government is proceeding with a multi-billion pound project with Grayling’s beliefs as evidence. Why does the government believe that a country of our size should focus on one major airport in an already overcrowded South East? Germany has multiple major airports, Spain three, the French, Italians, and Japanese have at least two. And I find it astonishing that the government is paying such little heed to our legal and moral environmental obligations.

One of my first acts as an MP nineteen years ago was to set out the Liberal Democrat opposition to the expansion of Heathrow or any airport in southeast England. The United Kingdom has a huge imbalance between the London and the South East, and the rest of the country. This imbalance is a serious issue which our government must get to work remedying. Unfortunately, the expansion of Heathrow does just the opposite - it further concentrates government spending and private investment on this overcrowded corner of the country.

Transport for London estimates that to make the necessary upgrades to transport links around Heathrow will be £10-£20 billion pounds. Heathrow airport is reportedly willing to pay only £1billion of those costs. Without upgrades to the Tube and rail links, the impact on London’s already clogged roads will be substantial. Any diversion of investment from improving TfL’s wider network to lines serving Heathrow would be catastrophic for the capital. And it will not be welcomed by Londoners who already face a daily ordeal of crowded tubes and traffic-delayed buses. In the unlikely event that the government agrees to fund this shortfall, this would be salt in the wound for the South-West, the North, and other parts of the country already deprived of funding for improved rail and road links.

Increased congestion in the capital will not only raise the collective blood pressure of Londoners, but will have severe detrimental effects on our already dire levels of air pollution. During each of the last ten years, air pollution levels have been breached at multiple sites around Heathrow. While a large proportion of this air pollution is caused by surface transport serving Heathrow, a third more planes arriving and departing adds yet more particulates to the air. Even without expansion, it is imperative that we work out how to clean this toxic air. Barrelling ahead without doing so is irresponsible, doing nothing but harm our planet and shorten the lives of those living in west London.

We need an innovative, forward-looking strategy. We need to make transferring to a train to Cardiff after a flight from Dubai as straightforward and simple as transferring to another flight is now. We need to invest in better rail links so travelling by train to the centre of Glasgow or Edinburgh is quicker than flying. Expanding Heathrow means missing our climate change targets is a certainty; it makes life a misery for those who live around the airport and it diverts precious Government spending from other more worthy projects.

The Prime Minister would be wise to heed her own advice to the 2008 government and “recognise widespread hostility to Heathrow expansion.” The decision to build a third runway at Heathrow is the wrong one and if she refuses to U-turn she will soon discover the true extent of the opposition to these plans.

Tom Brake is the Liberal Democrat MP for Carshalton & Wallington.