Differentiation is necessary but not sufficient

There needs to be a fundamental political repositioning of the Lib Dems

One word that has been uttered time and again at this year's autumn Liberal Democrat conference is this: 'differentiation'. This is, in simple terms, the strategy that Liberal Democrats in government are now pursuing: highlighting much more openly the areas where the two coalition parties disagree. It's one of the reasons, incidentally, why this year's conference has been rather unexpectedly upbeat, because, for the first time in a while, there is a strategy in place to which both the party leadership and ordinary members subscribe.

But while differentiation - if done properly - is certainly necessary, it is by no means sufficient. After all, if disagreeing with the Conservatives was all we had to do for electoral success, the Liberal Democrats would have had parliamentary majorities since the party's formation.

Actually, what is now needed is something much more difficult than mere differentiation, tough though that in itself is to get right. What's needed is a deep and fundamental repositioning of the Liberal Democrats within British politics.

Such a process won't be easy, because it will involve accepting difficult truths - the most crucial of which is that many, if not most, of those who voted Liberal Democrat because they saw us as an uncompromised version of the Labour party will not be coming back to us any time soon. Many of them will go back to supporting a Labour party relishing the easy populism of opposition, while the ones that see any electoral compromise as a sin - the protest voters - will go and support smaller parties like the Greens.

Thankfully, though, the sort of strategising necessary to reposition the party seems already to be taking place. When I interviewed him on Sunday, Nick Clegg clearly had a vision about where he wants to take the party over the next few years, even if it is one that is not yet completely formed. He sums up how he wants the party to be seen quite pithily: more economically responsible than Labour and more socially just than the Conservatives.

This is an idea that has a lot of merit in my view, though it would be more effective if it wasn't expressed relative to the positions of the other parties. Developing the language necessary to clearly communicate this idea without borrowing the language of the other parties will take time, but fortunately that is something we have got.

Those political commentators who take a more intelligent approach to the Liberal Democrats are also beginning to see promise in the green shoots of this new strategy - take Mary Ann Sieghart in Monday's Independent, for example.

Much of the analysis of Nick Clegg's speech to conference today will focus on what he has to say about his coalition colleagues. What I will be listening out for, though, is not about what he says about the present, but hints about his vision for the future.

Nick Thornsby is a Liberal Democrat member and activist. His own blog can be found here.

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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.