LSE £8,500 fee buys breathing space for Willetts

If the LSE asks for £8,500, how can lesser universities justify charging the full £9,000?

The decision by the London School of Economics to charge less than £9,000 for normal undergraduate tuition fees will give a boost to the coalition's beleaguered higher education policy. Although the LSE will still charge £8,500, it ruptures the notion that top universities can only offer a quality education for £9,000. It also creates vital breathing space for the universities minister, David Willetts.

Whenever Willetts is rightly criticised for his failure to foresee that every half-decent university would rush to charge the maximum amount, Willetts can now point to a top-class university and say: "They can do it for less than £9,000, so why can't other elite universities?" He can also legitimately ask: "If the LSE is charging £8,500, why is somewhere like Bradford* charging £9,000?"

The LSE has the highest average starting salary for graduates and a reputation for being one of the best universities on the planet. Bradford, for all its merits, has neither – yet each of its students is forking out £500 more a year for his or her degrees.

It is true that the LSE has been able to charge less for two exceptional reasons. First, it does not produce expensive scientific research, concentrating instead on relatively cheap areas of study such as the humanities. Second, the university generates much of its income from overseas students, whom it charges eye-wateringly high fees.

A full-time Master's degree from the university will set you back close to £20,000 a year if you are an overseas student. At the same time, however, cuts to the university teaching budget have hit the LSE particularly hard. Reductions to the teaching grant for the humanities and the arts have left the LSE with practically no direct government funding.

Five hundred pounds a year is a very small saving. It reduces the cost of tuition fees for a three-year undergraduate from £27,000, to £25,500 – both very large figures. But while £500 is insignificant in financial terms, politically it is priceless for the coalition.

It may not be much, but it's all there is for the government to cling to as it tries to swim through the choppy waters of British university funding.

*NB: I don't mean to pick on Bradford alone. It is in a similar position to dozens of other universities in the UK which are planning to charge £9,000 a year, despite having less-than-stellar reputations.

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Theresa May's U-Turn may have just traded one problem for another

The problems of the policy have been moved, not eradicated. 

That didn’t take long. Theresa May has U-Turned on her plan to make people personally liable for the costs of social care until they have just £100,000 worth of assets, including property, left.

As the average home is valued at £317,000, in practice, that meant that most property owners would have to remortgage their house in order to pay for the cost of their social care. That upwards of 75 per cent of baby boomers – the largest group in the UK, both in terms of raw numbers and their higher tendency to vote – own their homes made the proposal politically toxic.

(The political pain is more acute when you remember that, on the whole, the properties owned by the elderly are worth more than those owned by the young. Why? Because most first-time buyers purchase small flats and most retirees are in large family homes.)

The proposal would have meant that while people who in old age fall foul of long-term degenerative illnesses like Alzheimers would in practice face an inheritance tax threshold of £100,000, people who die suddenly would face one of £1m, ten times higher than that paid by those requiring longer-term care. Small wonder the proposal was swiftly dubbed a “dementia tax”.

The Conservatives are now proposing “an absolute limit on the amount people have to pay for their care costs”. The actual amount is TBD, and will be the subject of a consultation should the Tories win the election. May went further, laying out the following guarantees:

“We are proposing the right funding model for social care.  We will make sure nobody has to sell their family home to pay for care.  We will make sure there’s an absolute limit on what people need to pay. And you will never have to go below £100,000 of your savings, so you will always have something to pass on to your family.”

There are a couple of problems here. The proposed policy already had a cap of sorts –on the amount you were allowed to have left over from meeting your own care costs, ie, under £100,000. Although the system – effectively an inheritance tax by lottery – displeased practically everyone and spooked elderly voters, it was at least progressive, in that the lottery was paid by people with assets above £100,000.

Under the new proposal, the lottery remains in place – if you die quickly or don’t require expensive social care, you get to keep all your assets, large or small – but the losers are the poorest pensioners. (Put simply, if there is a cap on costs at £25,000, then people with assets below that in value will see them swallowed up, but people with assets above that value will have them protected.)  That is compounded still further if home-owners are allowed to retain their homes.

So it’s still a dementia tax – it’s just a regressive dementia tax.

It also means that the Conservatives have traded going into the election’s final weeks facing accusations that they will force people to sell their own homes for going into the election facing questions over what a “reasonable” cap on care costs is, and you don’t have to be very imaginative to see how that could cause them trouble.

They’ve U-Turned alright, but they may simply have swerved away from one collision into another.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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