Scotland's fees anomaly comes under challenge

Does charging English students tuition fees violate human rights law?

In just over a year's time, English students will be charged the highest public university fees in the world. Despite ministers promising that only an "exceptional" number of institutions would charge £9,000, 47 of England's 123 universities plan to levy the maximum fee for all courses.

By contrast, courtesy of Alex Salmond's SNP administration, Scottish students will continue to enjoy free higher education. But while the country's universities are legally obliged to also offer free entrance to EU students, a legal loophole means that they are able to charge students from England fees of £1,820 ( £2,895 for medicine) per year - a sum that will increase to £9,000 from 2012. In other words, under European law, it is permissible to discriminate within states but not between them.

Now, this anamoly is under challenge from human rights lawyers. Phil Shiner, of Public Interest Lawyers, argues that the system contravenes article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights and could also be in breach of the Equality Act. He says that Scottish ministers have "misinterpreted the law" and that "the argument about domicile and nationality doesn't hold water".

It's no surprise that this issue has arisen now. When I interviewed Steve Smith, the recently-departed head of Universities UK, last month, he told me that the status quo was untenable.

"That announcement shocked me," he said. "They [the SNP] had made such principled statements in the past about how iniquitous fees were and then they announced that they were going to allow institutions to charge £9,000." He added: "I suspect the government will do something ... It does seem very odd to me that someone can come from France and get the same terms as someone in Scotland but if they come from England they pay £9,000. That seems to me an anomaly that can't stand in the long-run."

The Scottish fees policy is often wrongly perceived as anti-English (the Daily Mail refers to it as "the fees apartheid") but it's simply aimed at maximising revenue for universities. Students from Wales and Northern Ireland also pay fees and the SNP is attempting to ensure that EU students do likewise. The number of EU students at Scottish universities (widely viewed as "a cheap option") has doubled to 15,930 over the last decade, at an annual cost to the Scottish taxpayer of £75m.

For the left, Scotland should serve as a reminder that tuition fees are a political choice, not an economic necessity. The British government can afford to fund free higher education through general taxation, it merely chooses not to. In public expenditure terms, the UK currently spends 0.7 per cent of its GDP on higher education, a lower level than France (1.2 per cent), Germany (0.9 per cent), Canada (1.5 per cent), Poland (0.9 per cent) and Sweden (1.4 per cent). Even the United States, where students make a considerable private contribution, spends 1 per cent of its GDP on higher education - 0.3 per cent more than the UK does.

Nick Clegg was never more wrong than when he said the "state of the finances" meant the coalition had no choice but to increase fees. In reality, for the reminder of this parliament at least, the reforms will cost the government more, not less. The new fees won't come into effect until 2012, which means repayments won't begin until 2015 for a three-year course. In the intervening period, the government will be forced to pay out huge amounts in maintenance and tuition-fee loans.

If English students win free entry to Scottish universities, while their friends pay £9,000 per year, it will only increase the pressure for an end to fees across the UK.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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