I supported the Government on Higher Education funding last night.
For someone like me – who has always believed that education should be free – it has been a difficult decision. Sadly, my view of education (free through raising taxation) isn’t on the table – or anywhere near it. That vision was ended when Labour introduced tuition fees and the principle of free education for all fell. So last night I chose to vote for the proposals because they are fairer than either the NUS or Labour proposals. I also could not justify students being the only group in society protected from the cuts.
Not only will paying back be at a cheaper rate than the current system – but no one will have to pay back until their salary reaches a higher threshold than before (£21,000 up-rated annually). Students from poorer backgrounds will have £150 million in bursaries and the maintenance grant which is over £3000 and has increased slightly doesn’t have to be paid back at all. Moreover, for the first time, part-time students (often poor, often missed first chance and often women) will also not have to pay anything up front – removing a real barrier to further education.
However, the key question for me was will that level of potential debt put poorer students off? When Labour introduced tuition fees – I believed poorer students would be put off. That didn’t happen. In fact more students went to university – and more of those students came from poorer families. With these increases I remain concerned – but have received assurances that if there is any sign of a falling off of applications from poorer students – action will be taken.
At this point in time, with the widest gap between rich and poor and social mobility non-existent – I believe the biggest inhibition to children from poorer backgrounds going to university – is that they don’t see themselves in that way and don’t have that aspiration. That is why for me the money we are putting into early years and into the pupil premium is so important. Closing that gap and increasing social mobility has to be the priority.
Lastly – on breaking the NUS pledge – I can only apologise. However, for me, that pledge was super-ceded by my signing up to the coalition agreement and although the coalition agreement allowed for abstention – for me that would have felt like opting out of making a very important decision.
I have listened to local students, local residents, party members, council group members and colleagues – and thank them all for their views. It is clear that everyone cares passionately about education and life chances – and that just because we may have differing views on how best to go forward – we all do care.