Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Labour Must Check the Economic Tides before Launching Any Policies

Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Labour Must Check the Economic Tides before Launching Any Policies

Article excerpt

£6K fees was the wrong idea at the wrong time. The party has to tailor its next plans to the wider climate, argues Andy Westwood

The polls were wrong. YouGov, ComRes, Populus, Newsnight, Ipsos Mori, even Lord Ashcroft - all told us that the general election was going to be far closer than it turned out to be. With Conservative victory, a whole host of possibilities have been consigned to the great dustbin of policy history. There will be no Institutes of Technical Education, no technical degrees and, most significantly perhaps, no cut in tuition fees. For now, finance directors and vice-chancellors can put away their spreadsheets.

In the end, it all came down to the economy. Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton were right all along (remember the lines "Are you better off than you were four years ago?" and "It's the economy, stupid"). People felt better off than they did five years ago and much less fearful about the future. It was the economy that mattered most to voters, and people were naive to believe that the debate had changed.

But for English universities, everything was dominated by Labour's plan to lower fees to £6,000. Was it ill-advised? Plenty thought so. It was always likely to be better politics than policy. Designed for broad political appeal rather than as a practical way of improving higher education, the policy is redundant, although the politics may prove not to be. A majority of parents still think that £9,000 fees aren't good value. According to YouGov - yes, them again - only 14 per cent think tuition fees offer a good deal, while almost 60 per cent think degrees aren't worth the money. In the US, President Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have both been looking to lower tuition fees and the costs of a college education. Many other countries such as Germany and Scotland have abolished fees altogether.

Any renewed pitch to the middle ground or to hard-working families has to include higher education. Most people know that a degree is what helps you to get on in life. So will Labour try to reduce fees again? That will depend on the politics. But even more crucial will be the economy. The current system of higher education funding will succeed or fail on that basis. Much depends on whether economic conditions will allow more graduates to work in jobs that enable them to repay their loans. The resource accounting and budgeting charge will fall by 2020 if this happens. If it doesn't, the funding system will be in real trouble and will need radical surgery. Higher interest rates, lower repayment thresholds and other money-saving measures may be introduced before the next election. …

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