December 6, 2010 10:09 pm

A fairer Britain

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Growth in the university population has done nothing to boost social mobility, writes Nick Clegg

The argument over the funding of higher education has generated more heat than light. Students and young people are angry. The government’s proposals are controversial. But I am convinced that they are the fairest way to keep Britain’s higher education sector strong, even as we cut the deficit that endangers our economy.

A vibrant university sector is a hallmark of a prosperous, civilised nation, and in recent years ours has expanded hugely. When I was a student in the late 1980s, one in seven young people went to university. Now one in three do. This is good news. But an expanding HE sector means expanding public costs, too. In an ideal world it would not be necessary to ask graduates to pay more towards their degree. But we do not live in an ideal world. We have an economic mess to clear up.

Given this difficult financial backdrop, one option was to slash university places. But reversing the gains of recent years here would have been economically and socially suicidal. So the only responsible answer was to change the balance in funding between graduates and the government. In tough times, just as everybody else is making sacrifices, it is reasonable to ask graduates – who on average earn more than non-graduates – to pay more towards the cost of their education.

Our reforms of HE do not represent a retreat from the objective of boosting social mobility. Quite the opposite. Social mobility is the overriding social policy goal of this government. That is why we have provided extra money for policies that will increase the life chances of disadvantaged children, in early years education for poorer toddlers and in a pupil premium for disadvantaged schoolchildren. These policies represent a £5bn attack on the opportunity gap that blights the life chances of the poorest.

The uncomfortable truth is that the growth in the university population in recent years has done little or nothing to boost social mobility. The student population has become more middle-class dominated. The coalition is intent on making universities more effective engines of social mobility.

The proposed new £150m national scholarship fund will give additional financial help to the poorest applicants. Tougher access requirements for those who want to charge up to the £9,000 cap will open the doors of the best universities to a wider mix. For the first time since Labour introduced fees, part-time students will also be brought into the same funding system as full-time students. This means they will no longer be singled out, unfairly, to pay up-front fees.

The Liberal Democrats said when we entered the coalition that we would judge HE reform proposals against the goals of promoting social mobility and improving the social diversity of university intakes. The new system should achieve these aims, although it will of course be many years before we know for sure.

By contrast a pure graduate tax, favoured by the National Union of Students and by some of Labour’s front bench (some of the time) is not the best option. Graduates who moved abroad could escape their obligations. Many graduates would face higher payments. Under our scheme, a care worker starting on £21,000 will pay an average of just £7 a month over their career. Under a “progressive” graduate tax, that would increase five-fold, to £36 a month. This may be why in 2003 the Labour government produced a publication entitled “Why Not a Pure Graduate Tax”.

In the heat of the recent row, some unhelpful myths have also circulated. The first is that the new funding system will worsen social mobility, with young people from less affluent backgrounds put off by fear of graduate debt. Yet there is no hard evidence to support this fear. In fact, our scheme will see lowest-income graduates paying considerably less than the current system, while all students will pay less on a monthly basis. Myth number two is that our plans are a withdrawal of state funding from HE. In fact, the government will still be providing at least £2bn of public support every year to universities – almost twice what we spend on the Foreign Office.

The government’s plans will fix higher education funding, with a fairer repayment system and more financial security for universities. History teaches that the best and longest-lasting reforms are controversial when introduced. Right now, our plans are causing plenty of controversy. But I am confident that they will stand the test of time.

The writer is deputy prime minister

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