Liberal Democrat president Tim Farron at the party's spring conference in Brighton last year. Photograph: Getty Images.
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The next Lib Dem leader must come from the party's left

Rather than Jeremy Browne, the party needs a centre-left figurehead, such as Tim Farron, to revive its fortunes.

You can tell a series of elections are on the way, as speculation abounds again about the leadership of Nick Clegg and the future direction of the Liberal Democrats. I once, famously, and I admit wrongly, speculated about it myself on this very blog site when I wrote a post in anger (never a good thing to do) about Clegg.

Although I’m undoubtedly from a different wing of the party to him, I respect the leadership he’s shown on issues including our membership of the European Union and equal marriage. I accept that Clegg will likely lead our party into the 2015 general election and, possibly, beyond. But it’s a plain fact that one day he will stand down and a new leader will be elected. So, it’s on that basis that I suggest that the next leader of the party should come from its centre-left.

There’s no doubt that many people who consider themselves on the centre-left of the party- social liberals and social democrats -have left to join other parties or to be a member of no party because they couldn’t stand some of the things Lib Dem ministers were signing up to as part of the coalition.

But I’d still argue that the majority of the party’s membership remains - broadly speaking - on the centre-left of the political spectrum. Given some of what we’ve had to swallow, we’ve remained very disciplined, far more so than the disgruntled elements of the Tory party have.

I hope that whenever Clegg decides to stand down (and that could be years away) it’s an MP from the party’s centre-left who takes over. My personal choice for our next leader would be Tim Farron. His profile has slowly risen during his exemplary presidency of the party where he’s taken on the task of being the representative of the party’s left on a number of issues, from opposing the bedroom tax to always speaking up for the poorest and most vulnerable in our society.

We also shouldn’t count out Vince Cable. The argument that he’s “too old” is spurious and offensive. A more reasonable argument for him not succeeding Clegg is that, as Business Secretary in this coalition government, he’s just as responsible as the current Lib Dem leader for the bad bits of this administration’s record. But he certainly shouldn’t be ruled out.

Then there's Steve Webb, not much known outside Westminster yet but making a big name for himself and forcing through a number of significant Lib Dem wins in a notoriously difficult department.

As for potential candidates from the right of the party, my view is that Jeremy Browne has shot himself in the foot with his statements on various media platforms whilst promoting his book over the past week.  If what he’s espousing is “authentic liberalism” then I’d gladly be called an inauthentic liberal. I will never agree to further privatisation of our National Health Service or to an expansion of Free Schools.

I believe in an enabling state, which gives people opportunities, whatever their background or present circumstances, which provides certain services not for profit but because they’re basic fundamental services and which people already pay for in general taxation. Yes, I’m a social democrat and a social liberal and proud of it; two fine traditions in our party and flames which burn brightly despite the knocks they’ve taken in recent years.

I believe we, as a party, need to remember our founding beliefs and begin to live up to them. The preamble to our constitution states: “The Liberal Democrats exist to build and safeguard a fair, free and open society, in which we seek to balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community and in which no one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity.”

A party living up to those values is not ‘pointless,’ Mr Browne. It is vitally needed in a country where both of the two major parties prove time and again that they are far from liberal.

Mathew Hulbert is a Liberal Democrat Borough and Parish Councillor in Leicestershire

Photo: Getty
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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.