Political sketch: Leveson's battle for linguistic supremacy

The Education Secretary's afternoon at the Courts.

 

When Cicero, in the fourth book of his second oration against Verres, wrote "o tempora o mores," little did he know the school swot from Robert Gordon's College in Aberdeen would trot it out at the Leveson inquiry - but then he'd never met Michael Gove.

The one-time Times Leader writer - now Education Secretary - took a half day off his hols to trot his brain and its attendant vocabulary down to the Royal Courts of Justice to question why time was being wasted.

For those who have yet to meet Mr Gove, imagine a male version of Miss Jean Brodie, prim and proper but with a large streak of self-satisfaction.

He arrived at the inquiry with baggage having described its "chilling atmosphere" as a danger to free speech in an address to journalists earlier this year.

And he had clearly warmed to his theme as he took his place in the seat polished by the appearance yesterday of Tony Blair whose more jaundiced view of the press had been presented.

A man supremely confident in his own opinions, as befits someone paid to trot them out daily in The Thunderer, Mr Gove made it clear from the outset that he was there to lecture and not to be lectured.

Chief Inquisitor Robert Jay appeared a bit baffled by his new witness whose mouth seemed constantly more full of words than would fit and so even he, the man who brought us "propinquity" just recently, could only listen to someone never knowingly contradicted - who had he been in a real court would have been described as hostile.

Many and grand words, several of them in foreign languages, were spoken as the two men jousted for linguistic superiority but the Scotsman saw off his competitor as sentences rang around the courtroom.

We did discover that Rupert Murdoch, whom Gove seemed to meet on a very regular basis, was "one of the most impressive and significant figures over the last fifty years," and someone with whom he had never discussed anything relevant to the inquiry at any time and in any place.

He also had been "privileged", as he put it, to meet Viscount Harmsworth owner of the Mail stable and equally privileged to meet Richard Desmond, owner of much more besides.

And if that were not enough he had met Paul Dacre, editor-in-chief of the Daily Mail, and "one of the most impressive editors of our age".

Having guaranteed good coverage in more than half of Fleet Street tomorrow - not to mention job security after the general election - Mr Gove turned his attention to the threat to freedom he clearly believes the inquiry could pose.

He asked if the cure might be worse than the disease as he rattled off word perfect replies to anything Jay put to him, and even Lord Leveson got short shrift when he tried to prick his bumptiousness.

And there was little love lost when Lord L's patience finally ran out during Lecture XXVI on Freedom: "I don't need to be told about the importance of free speech, I really don't," he said rather testily.

But Michael refused to be pricked and on he went to remind the judge to be careful when drawing up his recommendations.

Then it was back to the Department of Education where no doubt they had taken advantage of the headmaster's absence and gone to the pub.

 
Michael Gove. Photo: Getty Images

Peter McHugh is the former Director of Programmes at GMTV and Chief Executive Officer of Quiddity Productions

Photo: Getty
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It's a stab in the dark: the myth of predicting your student loan repayments

Even the company responsible for collecting repayments admits that it can't tell students what they'll be.

In response to renewed calls to overhaul the student finance system, the universities minister Jo Johnson insisted last week that the "current system works". He pointed out that a university degree boosts "lifetime income by between £170,000 and £250,000".

What he failed to mention is that not even the people administering the loan system can tell students what they will be expected to pay back each month, because they can't work out what they'll earn. 

When asked by the New Statesman why it had pulled an online calculator designed to tell students what their repayments would be, the Student Loans Company (SLC) said it wasn't "possible to answer customers' questions about how long it will take to repay their loan or how much they will owe at a point in the future because there is no accurate way of predicting their future earning".

The confusion around student loans stems from the fact that, unlike loans from banks, their repayment is income contingent.

Until May last year, the SLC had a calculator on its website which students and parents could use to predict how much they may have to repay in the future. But after Andrew McGettigan, a higher education journalist, emailed the SLC noting that the calculator did not take into account gender inequality in future salaries, it was swiftly taken down. 

It was in response to queries about this calculator from the New Statesman that the SLC admitted that there was no accurate way to predict future repayments. The organisation added that it was "exploring new and better ways to present information" to its customers. 

This admission appears to undermine Johnson’s “fair and equitable” description of the student finance system. If even SLC can't say what repayments could look like, how do we know? 

Further controversy around student loan repayments is expected when a report is published later this year by the Department for Education on student finance and expenditure. This is expected to highlight the discrepancy between the maintenance loans students receive and rising rent costs. 

There are still a range of unofficial student loan calculators on the internet, but many use overly optimistic projections for future earnings. McGettigan says this is because they are based on salary trends from the 1980s to the 2010s. He also adds that these unofficial calculators are all based on the official one that was removed – and that they also do not take into account the impact of Brexit. It's a stab in the dark.

The SLC notes that "every student who applies for their student finance online must navigate a page of key repayment information that outlines six points". Student loans are inherently complicated by design, but as Amatey Doku, NUS vice president (higher education), makes clear, this has consequences for fair access to higher education. “We know that BME and poorer students are more worried about high levels of debt than any other group, but the current system does not provide adequate support for those about to enter it.”

Students seeking advice from an independent body will be hard-pressed to find one. The independent Student Finance Taskforce set up by the coalition government in 2011, which sought “to reassure potential students about what they can expect when applying for university and beyond”, was quietly discontinued and never replaced. 

Read more: Jeremy Corbyn's opponents are going down a blind alley on tuition fees

Further confusion surrounds the government’s framing of student finance to sixth formers. Beyond the debate surrounding tuition fees, there is the assumption that has never been made explicit by either political party, which is that students who have a household income of more than £25,000 are expected to have some form of financial support from their families for living costs.

Are parents made aware of this before their children apply to university? Unlike in America, where parents are encouraged to put money away into a “college fund”, the British government never openly encourages parents to save specifically to send their children to university. 

Although there is “no specific date” for its publishing, the Department for Education's report is is believed to argue that, much like the NUS’s debt report did in 2015, that the current system results in poorer students having to take excessive part-time work during the university term. Some also have to take on commercial loans. The stress of both can have an adverse effect on students' mental health.

All this, and not even the organisation responsible for collecting repayments can tell students how much they will be paying back.