If Clegg wants to keep tuition fees he needs to rename them

The Lib Dems (and students) would immediately feel better if tuition fees were renamed as a 'capped graduate tax'.

Unlike the Independent, I’ve not been privy to the 'Learning and Life' paper that is apparently being presented to Lib Dem conference in September, which suggests we should go into the next election without making any, um, pledges, on how tertiary education should be funded. Just a bit of a vague promise to take a look at it when we’re in government  - by all accounts:

 …we have thoroughly examined the current system and the alternatives – a graduate tax and lowering fees – and concluded that we should stick with the current system and review it once it has been given a proper chance to bed in

Now, I know us foot soldiers are all meant to be on our best behaviour and act like grown ups right now , so I will be considered and patient and wait until I read the paper before throwing all my toys out of the pram and shouting 'this is madness isn’t it?'; but can I make one small suggestion to the good folk in the working group? We could just rename 'tuition fees' as a 'capped graduate tax' and everyone would immediately feel a whole lot better.

I’ve suggested this before and I willingly admit that there’s more than a tad of the snake oil salesman about it. But there’s no doubt that while the phrase 'tuition fees' is like a red rag to a student bull, a capped graduate tax is not.

Renaming an unpopular fee as a more acceptable 'tax' is effectively just behavioural economics, beloved by the No 10 Nudge Unit and, indeed, popular with the PM himself. It would have been a neat solution to avoiding a lot a lot of unpleasantness for the Lib Dems right from the start.

I’ve never been able to understand why we didn’t go down this road. When I originally asked the question, I was told it was because ministers had been advised by civil servants that they couldn’t do it. So I put in a freedom of information request to see this advice; this revealed that not only were ministers not advised that they couldn’t just call tuition fees a 'graduate tax' - in fact they were given the opposite advice:

in some respects, the loan repayment is equivalent to a capped graduate tax (and presentationally there is an advantage in describing it as such).

So why don’t we do it?

Now, is this what I want to happen? No. I’d like a full on debate on tertiary education funding at conference and actual implementation of our current policy. But apparently the leadership isn’t so keen on that. Not good for the cameras. And not very grown up.

So this seems a fairly good compromise, delivering what the Lib Dem working party want (the status quo), the grassroots would buy (no more tuition fees), and be better for tertiary education to boot (because more people would buy into it).

Any takers?

Nick Clegg speaks at last year's Liberal Democrat conference in Brighton. Photograph: Getty Images.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

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Let's turn RBS into a bank for the public interest

A tarnished symbol of global finance could be remade as a network of local banks. 

The Royal Bank of Scotland has now been losing money for nine consecutive years. Today’s announcement of a further £7bn yearly loss at the publicly-owned bank is just the latest evidence that RBS is essentially unsellable. The difference this time is that the Government seems finally to have accepted that fact.

Up until now, the government had been reluctant to intervene in the running of the business, instead insisting that it will be sold back to the private sector when the time is right. But these losses come just a week after the government announced that it is abandoning plans to sell Williams & Glynn – an RBS subsidiary which has over 300 branches and £22bn of customer deposits.

After a series of expensive delays and a lack of buyer interest, the government now plans to retain Williams & Glynn within the RBS group and instead attempt to boost competition in the business lending market by granting smaller "challenger banks" access to RBS’s branch infrastructure. It also plans to provide funding to encourage small businesses to switch their accounts away from RBS.

As a major public asset, RBS should be used to help achieve wider objectives. Improving how the banking sector serves small businesses should be the top priority, and it is good to see the government start to move in this direction. But to make the most of RBS, they should be going much further.

The public stake in RBS gives us a unique opportunity to create new banking institutions that will genuinely put the interests of the UK’s small businesses first. The New Economics Foundation has proposed turning RBS into a network of local banks with a public interest mandate to serve their local area, lend to small businesses and provide universal access to banking services. If the government is serious about rebalancing the economy and meeting the needs of those who feel left behind, this is the path they should take with RBS.

Small and medium sized enterprises are the lifeblood of the UK economy, and they depend on banking services to fund investment and provide a safe place to store money. For centuries a healthy relationship between businesses and banks has been a cornerstone of UK prosperity.

However, in recent decades this relationship has broken down. Small businesses have repeatedly fallen victim to exploitative practice by the big banks, including the the mis-selling of loans and instances of deliberate asset stripping. Affected business owners have not only lost their livelihoods due to the stress of their treatment at the hands of these banks, but have also experienced family break-ups and deteriorating physical and mental health. Others have been made homeless or bankrupt.

Meanwhile, many businesses struggle to get access to the finance they need to grow and expand. Small firms have always had trouble accessing finance, but in recent decades this problem has intensified as the UK banking sector has come to be dominated by a handful of large, universal, shareholder-owned banks.

Without a focus on specific geographical areas or social objectives, these banks choose to lend to the most profitable activities, and lending to local businesses tends to be less profitable than other activities such as mortgage lending and lending to other financial institutions.

The result is that since the mid-1980s the share of lending going to non-financial businesses has been falling rapidly. Today, lending to small and medium sized businesses accounts for just 4 per cent of bank lending.

Of the relatively small amount of business lending that does occur in the UK, most is heavily concentrated in London and surrounding areas. The UK’s homogenous and highly concentrated banking sector is therefore hampering economic development, starving communities of investment and making regional imbalances worse.

The government’s plans to encourage business customers to switch away from RBS to another bank will not do much to solve this problem. With the market dominated by a small number of large shareholder-owned banks who all behave in similar ways (and who have been hit by repeated scandals), businesses do not have any real choice.

If the government were to go further and turn RBS into a network of local banks, it would be a vital first step in regenerating disenfranchised communities, rebalancing the UK’s economy and staving off any economic downturn that may be on the horizon. Evidence shows that geographically limited stakeholder banks direct a much greater proportion of their capital towards lending in the real economy. By only investing in their local area, these banks help create and retain wealth regionally rather than making existing geographic imbalances worce.

Big, deep challenges require big, deep solutions. It’s time for the government to make banking work for small businesses once again.

Laurie Macfarlane is an economist at the New Economics Foundation