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How to read Nick Clegg’s speech on student fees

What follows is an annotated version of the Hugo Young speech given by Nick Clegg today. My annotations are shown in red.

There are a couple of bits that took my breath away…


Nick Clegg: Hugo Young lecture 2010.

Extract of portion dealing with higher education and student fees.

But, on higher education, I want to be crystal clear. I will defend the governments plans for reforming the funding of universities, even though it is not the one I campaigned for.

Well, as is gradually becoming generally understood, that is not the point. The point is the NUS pledge. Heres how the BBC now puts it:

Students are angered that the Liberal Democrats pursued the student vote with a personal, signed pledge from their election candidates that they would vote against increasing tuition fees.

Mr Clegg and his MPs signed a promise to students: “I pledge to vote against any increase in fees in the next parliament.”

At the election, Mr Clegg signed a pledge to students that he would vote against any fee increase

Mr Clegg made a personal video message for students in which he promised to resist any increase in fees.

Clegg is bleeding on this every day and he still has no answer to the central charge.

It is not my partys policy, but it is the best policy given the choices we face.

There are people who genuinely think Cleggs argument on this is sound. Im not one of them.

I know that more protests are planned by students tomorrow. I make just one request of those planning to protest: examine our proposals before taking to the streets. Listen and look before you march and shout.

Hold on. We dont even know what the plans actually are. The Institute of Fiscal Studies has still not been able to get a clear statement of the detail out of the government – and they are better at it than anyone else. And Universities UK has just outlined to its members the huge areas of the policy it is looking for guidance on. And the government is not planning on putting detailed plans on the table before the crunch vote on raising the cap on fees to £9,000. And ministers havent told us anything about what they are haggling over with social liberals down in the bowels of Westminster. What weve got from the Lib Dems on this is a strategy of obscurity and velocity – ie suppress discussion and then announce a fait accompli. If students wait to get a clear picture, it will be game over.

Our plans will mean that many of the lowest income graduates will repay less than they do under the current system. And all graduates will pay out less per month than they do now. Nobody will pay a penny back until their earnings reach £21,000 per year, compared to £15,000 now.

A fundamentally dishonest comparison. That £21,000 is in 2016 prices. In todays money, thats around £17,500. But even that doesnt get to the bottom of it. The threshold will only be uprated once every five years. So over the full term of the loan the average threshold in real terms will be lower even than £21,000 in 2016 prices. So the fair comparison is significantly lower, possibly even lower than £15k! [Someone please do this calculation!]

The highest-earning graduates will pay back the most.

Higher up in the speech, Clegg has attacked a narrow focus on income as a substitute for a fuller picture of wealth and poverty. Yet here he retreats to exactly the ground he has attacked. The contrast with the US system is illustrative. Over there, it is the wealth of the family when a student applies that is key to how much financial aid they receive. But Browne and now Clegg are blind to questions of family wealth. The consequence is that a lazy trustifarian will pay nothing for their degree. How progressive is that?

We will spend £150 million a year to lower the financial obstacles for applicants from the poorest backgrounds.

Thats good. But theres a huge amount of other reforms being pushed through scools and colleges. In particular, the Educational Maintenance Allowance that pays poor kids to stay on after 16 is being abolished. Is the total picture going to be an improvement or the reverse?

For the first time since Labour introduced fees, we will abolish the requirement for part-time students to pay up front for tuition. These students are generally older and poorer and make up 40% of all students. Providing they are studying for at least a third of their time, our plans mean they will no longer face an up-front fee.

Two of the first comments I received on the Browne proposals (eg from Terence Kealey) were that it would be bad for part time study. Certainly, these reforms on their own make part time study more attractive. But part time fees are actually relatively low now. What we may see is part time fees rising even more sharply than full time fees. Ouch.

And, perhaps most important of all, we will make sure that universities wanting to charge more for degrees are made to open their doors to the many, not just the few. For those institutions seeking to charge more than £6,000 a year — up to the proposed £9,000 limit — there will be stringent access requirements and real sanctions for those who fail the meet them.

We have no idea what those access requirements are. Repeat: We have absolutely no idea what the requirements will be. There is nothing to give substance that claim of “stringent”. Indeed, David Willetts said universities would be asked to come up with plans, at which the Office for Fair Access would then look. Students are being invited to buy a pig in a poke.

In fact, looked at objectively, our graduate contribution scheme is very close to the so-called graduate tax advocated by the NUS. Except its even fairer in the way its applied.

I sympathise with the first bit of that. Though of course theres a lot more variation – between institutions and courses.

There is lots of anger about higher education at the moment and I understand it. I am angry too. Heres what makes me angry. Oxford and Cambridge take more students each year from just two schools — Eton and Westminster — than from among the 80,000 pupils who are eligible for free school meals. Scandalously, the number of disadvantaged students going to these universities is going down, not up. And a young adult from an affluent background is now seven times more likely to go to university than one from a poor background.

This must be the most pointless anger of all time. As noted above, Clegg has not set out any measures that would make us believe what hes angry about is going to change. Indeed, the government has caved in to the Russell Groups demand that there be no targets.

These are the things that make me angry: these are the facts that would make me take to the streets; these are the injustices that our policy will remedy. Higher Education should be a powerful engine for social mobility. Right now it isnt. Our policies will finally make higher education open to everyone.

And we end up with government by assertion, a soaring claim that he has no evidence for.

The central point is that he has already failed to convince his own party that the reforms are progressive. Consequently he cant enforce a whip on his MPs on the issue and the government is struggling to make the arithmetic in the House of Commons add up. Nothing he has said here will touch that.