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.

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There's nothing Luddite about banning zero-hours contracts

The TUC general secretary responds to the Taylor Review. 

Unions have been criticised over the past week for our lukewarm response to the Taylor Review. According to the report’s author we were wrong to expect “quick fixes”, when “gradual change” is the order of the day. “Why aren’t you celebrating the new ‘flexibility’ the gig economy has unleashed?” others have complained.

Our response to these arguments is clear. Unions are not Luddites, and we recognise that the world of work is changing. But to understand these changes, we need to recognise that we’ve seen shifts in the balance of power in the workplace that go well beyond the replacement of a paper schedule with an app.

Years of attacks on trade unions have reduced workers’ bargaining power. This is key to understanding today’s world of work. Economic theory says that the near full employment rates should enable workers to ask for higher pay – but we’re still in the middle of the longest pay squeeze for 150 years.

And while fears of mass unemployment didn’t materialise after the economic crisis, we saw working people increasingly forced to accept jobs with less security, be it zero-hours contracts, agency work, or low-paid self-employment.

The key test for us is not whether new laws respond to new technology. It’s whether they harness it to make the world of work better, and give working people the confidence they need to negotiate better rights.

Don’t get me wrong. Matthew Taylor’s review is not without merit. We support his call for the abolishment of the Swedish Derogation – a loophole that has allowed employers to get away with paying agency workers less, even when they are doing the same job as their permanent colleagues.

Guaranteeing all workers the right to sick pay would make a real difference, as would asking employers to pay a higher rate for non-contracted hours. Payment for when shifts are cancelled at the last minute, as is now increasingly the case in the United States, was a key ask in our submission to the review.

But where the report falls short is not taking power seriously. 

The proposed new "dependent contractor status" carries real risks of downgrading people’s ability to receive a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. Here new technology isn’t creating new risks – it’s exacerbating old ones that we have fought to eradicate.

It’s no surprise that we are nervous about the return of "piece rates" or payment for tasks completed, rather than hours worked. Our experience of these has been in sectors like contract cleaning and hotels, where they’re used to set unreasonable targets, and drive down pay. Forgive us for being sceptical about Uber’s record of following the letter of the law.

Taylor’s proposals on zero-hours contracts also miss the point. Those on zero hours contracts – working in low paid sectors like hospitality, caring, and retail - are dependent on their boss for the hours they need to pay their bills. A "right to request" guaranteed hours from an exploitative boss is no right at all for many workers. Those in insecure jobs are in constant fear of having their hours cut if they speak up at work. Will the "right to request" really change this?

Tilting the balance of power back towards workers is what the trade union movement exists for. But it’s also vital to delivering the better productivity and growth Britain so sorely needs.

There is plenty of evidence from across the UK and the wider world that workplaces with good terms and conditions, pay and worker voice are more productive. That’s why the OECD (hardly a left-wing mouth piece) has called for a new debate about how collective bargaining can deliver more equality, more inclusion and better jobs all round.

We know as a union movement that we have to up our game. And part of that thinking must include how trade unions can take advantage of new technologies to organise workers.

We are ready for this challenge. Our role isn’t to stop changes in technology. It’s to make sure technology is used to make working people’s lives better, and to make sure any gains are fairly shared.

Frances O'Grady is the General Secretary of the TUC.