Tuition fee plans simply don’t add up

Increasing fees and loans saddles graduates with 30 years of debt. There is another way: the NUS’s p

Without the quiet work that we have been doing as a union to develop and shape the policy process - and our not-so-quiet work during the last general election, getting parliamentary candidates to sign our Vote for Students pledge - the current debate over tuition fees would not be as alive as it is today. It is disappointing but sadly predictable, therefore, that in the weeks leading up to the parliamentary vote, focus has shifted to petty squabbles and internal criticism rather than directing all our efforts on applying pressure to influence policy.

I have always believed that there should be a whole range of tactics deployed. That is why the National Union of Students (NUS) worked so hard to build towards November's 52,000-strong national demonstration, organised with the lecturers' union UCU. The biggest student protests in a generation ignited a spark of creative, non-violent action. And it has proved a political awakening for huge numbers of young people who had previously been disengaged.

Yet it is also true that standing outside parliament holding banners is a less effective tactic than being inside parliament talking to, persuading and cajoling MPs to vote against this government's proposals. We have to use all the democratic weapons in our arsenal. Others felt differently and organised accordingly. I have supported them in doing so, while focusing NUS resources as effectively as possible.

No mandate land

This, in short, is the politics of fees. Back in April, the NUS came under attack for providing an electoral opportunity to the Liberal Democrats. So many of them signed up to our pledge to abolish tuition fees because it was in keeping with their party's manifesto commitment. Their leader, Nick Clegg, sent a message to delegates at our annual conference saying that he would campaign against - and vote against - higher fees. Now that the Lib Dem leadership has gone back on this pledge, it criticises us for seeking to hold it to account.

Many students went to the polls believing that they were voting for something new, for something different and for a party willing to stand up for them. As Lib Dem MPs let down their constituents, the consequences will be grave - not only for the party but for a generation's trust in politics. We have already seen that young people can be turned off by politics when those involved do not listen to their concerns. This threatens the future legitimacy of our political system, as more of the public become frustrated with those who hold power.

There is no political mandate for the cuts that give rise to these increased fees - and yet the ruling elite choose to brush aside rational argument, claiming that there is no alternative. But introducing a market in higher education in which students base their course choice on cost price - and where public funding for most subjects is removed - is ideological, not rational.

We oppose the government's proposals on many fronts. Transferring the whole cost of tuition (for the majority of subjects) through a loan system that leads to massive levels of debt is not progressive. Compare it to the graduate tax proposals we put forward in our blueprint for higher-education funding, back in June 2009. If implemented, the lowest fifth of earners would pay less than £500 towards the cost of university tuition on graduation. By contrast, the coalition's proposals mean 75 per cent of students will pay more than they do now.

Ministers hide behind the language of progressive politics but their plans mean, for many graduates, 30 years saddled with debt. For a government that is fixated on the notion that debt is to be discouraged and that we should strive for responsible finance, the hypocrisy of the message is clear. When they tell thousands of young people that owing large amounts of money for the sake of their education is ac­ceptable, it is little wonder that so many are incredulous.

One of the greatest concerns we have with these proposals is the notion of choice based on course price. Even if the repayment structure after graduation looks relatively benign, it is ridiculous to assume that students won't take the price of their course and institution into account when they choose where to go and what to study. There is little to commend a progressive repayment structure if it is part of a regressive "package" that deters applicants and prospective students.

Clegg's mistake

Then there is the process. The parliamentary vote on tuition fees has preceded any efforts to address genuine concerns that students and would-be students have. No one knows what will be on offer on, for example, student support, widening access or course quality because no guarantees have been made.

All of this means that there is a real opportunity for Labour's new leader, Ed Miliband, to re-engage with students and young people and to reach out to the next generation. Agreeing to an alternative to fees by firmly backing a form of a graduate tax is the way forward - but it won't be enough. We need to see the detail. And part of the problem is trust. I am reminded by students time and time again that it was Labour who introduced fees in the first place. It's a legitimate point to make.

Miliband must address this concern. There is also a need to convince a generation of voters that politics counts and that the positions that candidates take when they stand for election matter. I believe that Clegg failed to heed this basic political truth.

Miliband must not repeat Clegg's mistake. He needs to earn the respect of the student population and develop some creative policy ideas that provide an antidote to the government's poisonous proposals.

Aaron Porter is president of the National Union of Students.