David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband listen to Angela Merkel address both Houses of Parliament in the Royal Gallery of the Palace of Westminster yesterday. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Where Clegg and Farage agree: Cameron's EU renegotiation plan is a fantasy

It will become harder for the PM to insist he can succeed when the europhile and the europhobe both declare he will fail.

Nick Clegg and Nigel Farage have recently encouraged voters to view them as dialectical opposites: Clegg represents "the party of in", Farage the "party of out" (the pair will soon debate each other on these terms). But it's worth highlighting one point on which the two leaders agree: David Cameron's EU renegotiation plan is a fantasy. Back in November 2012, Clegg said of his coalition partner's ambition to repatriate powers from Brussels: 

I want to focus on a proposal doing the rounds – that the best way to improve the UK's position in Europe is to renegotiate the terms of our relationship with the rest of the EU. We should opt out of the bad bits, stay opted into the good bits, and the way to do that is a repatriation of British powers.

That seems reasonable. In fact it's a pretty seductive offer – who would disagree with that?

But look a little closer. Because a grand, unilateral repatriation of powers might sound appealing. But in reality it is a false promise wrapped in a union jack.

Today, at UKIP's Spring Conference, Farage used strikingly similar language to deride Cameron's plan: 

What actually Angela Merkel exposed yesterday is that renegotiation, fundamental renegotiation of Britain’s relationship with the European Union, is something that has been put up by David Cameron to kick the issue into the long grass beyond the next general election. It is not obtainable. It is not achievable. Renegotiation is a con.

For Clegg, renegotiation is "a false promise"; for Farage, it's "a con". Angela Merkel, the woman who the Tories have pinned their hopes on, said nothing during her visit to Westminster to suggest either is wrong (as Rafael wrote yesterday). None of the changes the the German Chancellor cited, such as new rules to prevent "benefit tourism", and greater deregulation and subsidiarity, come close to the grand repatriation (the single market without "all the other stuff", in the words of Conservative MP Andrea Leadsom) that Tory eurosceptics crave (although many merely support renegotiation as a prelude to full withdrawal). The uncomfortable truth for Cameron, as Merkel signalled yesterday, is that there will be no special status for Britain. As she said in her speech to MPs and peers: "Supposedly, or so I have heard, some expect my speech to pave the way for a fundamental reform of the European architecture which will satisfy all kinds of alleged or actual British wishes. I’m afraid they are in for a disappointment."

The message was clear: in a union of 28, there can be no cherry-picking. It is true, as Cameron likes to point out, that UK enjoys opt-outs from the single currency and the Schengen zone. But since Britain was never a member of either to begin with, this is not a precedent for repatriation. Were the EU to grant the UK special treatment, the single market would risk unravelling as other member states made similarly self-interested demands. Tory MPs' vision of an à la carte Europe in which Britain, alone among the EU 28, is able to pick and choose which laws it obeys, is one rejected by all those with any significant influence over the outcome.  

Cameron, who has been careful not to publish a "shopping list" of demands (for fear that it will be rejected as insufficient by eurosceptics), is likely to emphasise again that no one goes into a renegotiation "hoping and expecting to fail". But when two figures as polarised as Clegg and Farage, declare alike that he will, it will become even harder to maintain this pretence. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Paul Marotta
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England is now a more expensive place to study than the US. Why?

Is a university education in this country really worth £44,000, and how does our system compare to higher education funding elsewhere?

England has long sneered at American universities and their exorbitant fees. It cannot do so any longer: England is now a more expensive country to study than the US, and is easily the most expensive of eight Anglophone countries – the four UK nations, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the US – analysed in a new Sutton Trust report. English students graduating from last year left university with an average of £44,000 in debt £15,000 more than Americans studying at for-profit universities across the pond.

Why do English students have it so much worse than other students in the UK? There are two answers. The first is the government's decision in 2010 to shift much of the cost of university from the general taxpayer to the beneficiaries: the students themselves. The second answer is devolution. The devolved governments in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales have made political choices to differentiate themselves from Westminster by prioritising keeping fees down – even when, as in Scotland, the effect is to benefit middle-class students at the expense of disadvantaged ones. Students in Wales who study in England are eligible for generous grants, meaning they pay less than £4,000 a year rather than up to £9,000. Those studying in Northern Ireland have their fees capped at £3,925. 

Even England's £9,000 fees are puny set against those at elite American universities. In 2016/17 annual, tuition fees at Harvard are $59,550 and, when all else is accounted for, Harvard reckon each year costs students $88,600. But such exorbitant numbers are not the real story. About 60% of Harvard students receive the Harvard Scholarship: a microcosm of how US students benefit from a culture of graduates giving endowents to their old universities that is still lacking in England. Scholarships and bursaries at universities in the US are far more generous than in other countries. And those who go to public universities within their own state pay far less: those graduating after four years leave with an average debt of only US$27,100 [£19,100]. This is why the average debt of US graduates is now considerably less than in England. But those who berate that even America now has a more benign system for students than England should not be so hasty. The majority of US loans are not income contingent, meaning that low earners who are already struggling still have to pay.

Governments throughout the world are grappling with how to fund send an increasing proportion of students to university in an era of austerity. In the last two decades at least 14 countries in the OECD, including Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the UK, have implemented major reforms to fees, according to the Sutton Trust. In general these reforms have led to students paying a greater share of the cost of their tuition. 

So in a sense what has happened in England is merely an extreme example of an international trend. And the introduction of tuition fees in 1998, which have been hiked up twice since, has been managed better than most acknowledge: indeed, the proportion of disadvantaged students at university has actually risen by one-fifth since tuition fees rose to £9,000.

But, with the poorest students in England now graduating with £50,000 in debt, more students will be driven to ask whether a university education is really worth it. For a small but significant minority, it isn’t. A recent IFS report found that male graduates from 23 low performing institutions – though it sadly declined to name them - earn less, on average, than those who do not go to university, and end up with huge debt to boot.

No matter how expensive a university education has become, not having one is even more expensive. Throughout the world demand for university education continues to soar; in England the average graduate premium is £200,000 over a lifetime. Yet too many dunce universities are saddling students with debt without giving them anything in return.    

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.