Rise in Student Fees Would Devastate Higher Education; THURSDAY ESSAY as Students Brace Themselves for Westminster's Vote on Tuition Fees Today, Owen Smith MP Says the Plans Amount to the Privatisation of Universities with Students as Shareholders

Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales), December 9, 2010 | Go to article overview

Rise in Student Fees Would Devastate Higher Education; THURSDAY ESSAY as Students Brace Themselves for Westminster's Vote on Tuition Fees Today, Owen Smith MP Says the Plans Amount to the Privatisation of Universities with Students as Shareholders


WHEN the vote is called in Parliament today, my Welsh Labour colleagues and I will be united in voting against the Government's plans for student fees of pounds 9,000 a year.

The increased fees proposed by the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats are neither necessary nor fair.

In the longer run, I fear they will both curtail the cherished, progressive ambition of opening higher education to all and constrain the curriculums of universities that are still the envy of much of the world.

And when we vote against these short-sighted plans, we will state that there is not only a principled reason to oppose them but also a practical alternative - as courageously unveiled last week by Leighton Andrews and the Labour-led Assembly Government.

So when our opponents say that Labour is just opposing their plans without an alternative vision, they are wrong. They asked for an alternative and, in Wales, we've given them one. Welsh students will not pay any more than they do currently and universities will be given the money to teach them. All it takes is the desire to make the education of our young people a priority. Politics is always about priorities and at a time when the UK Government is choosing to save money by narrowing opportunities for our children, the Assembly Government is widening them.

As such, I'm not in the least bit surprised by the furious reaction of the right-wing UK media to Leighton Andrews' statement. Labour's Welsh policy inconveniently exposes that their pet Government's approach is one of ideology, not necessity.

Assembly Ministers recognised that any realistic bid to offer an alternative to the regressive UK plans needed to start from the principle that students and the state should share the cost. The proposals we will vote on are a fundamental departure from that principle. The plans involve an 80% cut in the teaching grant to universities, meaning that many courses will be entirely funded by the student. In Wales, the effective cut is less than half of that, with universities being given money by the Assembly towards teaching their students. This reveals a basic difference in values. Unlike the Westminster coalition, Labour believes that higher education, as a public good, should be a priority for public spending.

What's more, this contrast needs to be looked at in the context of what we're expecting students to do - or more bluntly what we're expecting them to pay. A trebling of fees designed to increase the money available for teaching would be bad enough. But a trebling of fees to plug a vast hole left by the Government is even worse. …

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