Muslim students cry usury to avoid interest on student loans - is this fair?

Nik Darlington 6.00am

The Independent reports that an organisation representing Muslim students in Britain is protesting against the coalition government’s reforms to university finance.

The Federation of Student Islamic Societies (FOSI) warns that young Muslims could be forced to sacrifice higher education as a result of the higher rates of interest under a new university loans system. The Indy's Poppy McPherson writes:

Under some interpretations of Islamic law, the acquisition of loans - particularly those which accrue interest - is forbidden. The new system requires graduates who earn above £21,000 to pay interest levels of up to 3 per cent above inflation. The National Union of Students (NUS) has warned it could be two years before a suitable system is arranged [to accommodate Muslim students].

A FOSI spokesman said:

Under Islamic law interest is seen as something that is prohibited. Previously, the interest rate was at the market rate of inflation. The problem now is that the interest is above the market rate. Because the rate of interest is above the rate of inflation, it is quite blatant usury.

The first point here is also blatant: in Britain, we do not operate under Islamic law. The student finance system has to be devised according to British laws, not those of a religion observed by 3 per cent of the UK population.

Second - and less comforting, but historically apt - thoughout the ages, the spiritual has had to adapt to the temporal (and of course vice-versa). Usury, or the charging of interest of any kind (not necessarily excessive) on a loan, was outlawed by Christian churches for hundreds of years. The first instance of secular law overriding the church was when Henry VIII’s parliament passed ‘An Acte Agaynst Usurie’ in 1545. Islamic banks have already devised a number of methods of rewarding savers, such as entrance into Premium Bonds-style lotteries; or direct investment is encouraged instead of loans.

The third point is most pressing to the present situation of universtiy finances. The Government takes a sizeable hit on the currently interest-free student loan book. The Browne Review identified student loans as a straightforward and fair way of reforming university financing and shifting the burden from the taxpayer to graduates. Removing what was effectively a middle-class subsidy was the right thing to do. The state should not be handing out cash that in some cases will be invested in ISAs or unit trusts, so providing an easy return for students who don’t truly need their loans.

The money to finance universities needs to come from somewhere. The nervous fees and funding fudge contrived by coalition ministers means that not enough is going to come from students. HE institutions will still rely for some years to come on direct grants from the state. For the state to afford this, there has to be more of a contribution from those who can afford it most - the graduates earning enough money to pay off their loans, with interest.

One could just charge Muslim students more for their higher education in the first place, and allow them to forego the payment of interest at a later date. The tuition fees policy of the Scottish Government is an example of how the authorities can get away with discriminating against students within the same state without blinking an eyelid.

If Muslim students do not want to pay interest on their student loans because doing so would contravene their faith, then I have some sympathy for them. However, we cannot have a situation in which some graduates end up paying less because they happen to observe a different religion to their peers.

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To these young people, there really is no such thing as society

Nik Darlington 11.12am

Londoners have passed a night of relative peace and quiet, as opportunistic rioting and looting spread to other English cities.

As shock fades, the recriminations begin. Conservative MPs accuse the previous Labour government of fostering welfare dependency, failing to improve education and forcing fiscal austerity upon the nation. Labour MPs allege that coalition government spending cuts have created a context of weaker policing, youth unemployment and destroyed opportunities.

Both sides are wrong to blame each other without admitting to their own part. The deficit reduction objectives of Conservative and Liberal Democrat politicians are correct but indubitably they are creating difficult and perilous readjustments. This should be acknowledged. Labour politicians should face up to the fact of the economic mire they bequeathed, and the fact that youth unemployment stood at 2.5 million when they left office. Furthermore, a youth in Manchester interviewed on this morning’s Today programme said, “I’ll keep doing it until I get caught - the prisons are full so what are they going to do, give me an Asbo?” The Labour government filled our prisons to record numbers and introduced the utterly ineffectual Asbo.

As Robert Halfon writes this morning on ConservativeHome, “the causes go deep.” Deeper than the last government, and the government before that, and so on. Every government makes mistakes.

Blaming these riots on policies announced in the past 12 months is ignorant and intellectually lazy. Last night, the deputy leader of the Labour party, Harriet Harman, said the Government was not on the side of young people and alluded to tuition fees, the EMA and youth unemployment as causes for the discontent (see Newsnight clip below).

Showing the brazen obstinacy that has become her hallmark, Ms Harman ignored the fact that a re-elected Labour Government, which first introduced tuition fees (breaking a manifesto pledge) and commissioned the Browne Report, would have had to increase tuition fees. She ignored the fact that her government had plans to reform the inefficient EMA. New Statesmen blogger Dan Hodges tweets that if Labour continues to focus on it, the party will be out of power for a generation.

But most significantly, Ms Harman made the curious assumption that the young people rioting and looting in the streets of London and other cities have anything more than the remotest of ambitions for staying on at school or going to university.

Herein lies the root cause of the recent violence. It is found in the anger of an economic and social underclass in Britain’s cities; a collective rage borne out of disillusionment and exclusion. No single party, no single politician, no single government can be blamed for this miserable phenomenon. To ignore this demonstrates a collective dereliction of responsibility not dissimilar to that shown by the perpetrators of the past few days.

These are communities bereft of identity, responsibility and hope. A politician once said that there is no such thing as society; another more recently said that there is such a thing, it just isn’t the same thing as the state. But what the indiscriminate vandalism and cruelty demonstrates is that society is irrelevant to you, if you don’t even know of any such thing as community.


History shows the English state has always meddled with universities

Nik Darlington 5.38am

 In the medieval period there did not exist what we today would refer to as the modern nation state.  There was a relative lack of centralised political and administrative control.  Hence it was possible, according to Notker Hammerstein, for universities ‘to elude and frequently to avoid…government ordinances.’ 

Yet though the universities possessed a great deal of autonomy over their internal and external affairs this never meant total freedom from state interference.  Just because the state did not interfere at any one point in time does not mean that it couldn’t if it chose to do so.

The post-Reformation Tudor and Stuart periods witnessed a dramatic increase in state interference in higher education, primarily as part of the state’s wider social policy.  This interference was usually driven by what the purpose or function of the university was deemed to be at the time; the state then exploited that purpose or function to serve its own policies.  Whilst this could be seen as a narrow and insufficient representation of the history of universities in general, the themes it contains do reappear regularly throughout history.
Hugh Kearney tells us that on the eve of the English Reformation the universities of Oxford and Cambridge ‘provided the means for educating a clerical intelligentsia.’   Despite the religious upheavals of the sixteenth century those ancient universities retained their role of training clergymen, only now it was for the Church of England and not the Catholic Church.  Well into the seventeenth century this remained the universities’ primary function and Francis Bacon described them in 1605 as effectively ‘professional institutions.’   Richard Tyler has found that 41.3 per cent of Cambridge students took orders between 1590 and 1640.   The universities, of course, were not just seminaries.  In the decades following the English Reformation, sons of the gentry began to go up to Oxford or Cambridge in increasing numbers, meaning that by the 1630s there were not only many more undergraduates than there had been in medieval times but over half were laymen.   Nevertheless, the universities’ primary practical function was still to train the clergy, and it is for that reason that the Tudor court had become much more closely involved in university affairs.
 The Elizabethan settlement of 1559, amongst other things, gave the Crown absolute authority over both of the universities.  The universities’ colleges were self-governing institutions and in that respect they remained autonomous.  However, the state could, and did, interfere on a number of levels to achieve its aim of enforcing religious orthodoxy.
 As the universities were the training grounds for future clergymen it seemed appropriate for the Crown to ensure that they were being led and taught by the correct people, in the desired fashion.  Religious sectarianism was a significant threat to social order.  This was all too apparent in light of unrest on the continent, such as the Anabaptist uprisings in Münster over 1534-5.  Kett’s sectarian rebellion in Norfolk in 1549 was a catalyst for a greater clampdown on religious dissent.  In this historical context it is not hard to understand state interference in higher education as defending social order and religious orthodoxy and not as an attack on the universities’ autonomy.
John Whitgift, 1530-1604 The munificent donation of Regius chairs in 1540 had come with the condition that political and religious conformity was adhered to; Trinity College, Cambridge, and its sister college Christ Church, Oxford (both established in 1546), were also noteworthy royal endowments.   The effects of royal patronage are clearly evident in the career of John Whitgift, who became Lady Margaret’s Professor of Divinity at Cambridge in 1563.  His strict denunciations of religious dissent and harsh treatment of Puritanical belief earned him praise and enthusiastic support from the Crown and he was soon appointed Master of Pembroke Hall and then Trinity College, a very prestigious position.  In 1570 he introduced new university statutes that imposed a curriculum heavily favouring court authority and religious orthodoxy and his subsequent esteem was so high with Queen Elizabeth that he became Archbishop of Canterbury in 1583.  Although the occasional royal university appointment did not drastically alter the autonomous running of the universities, over time the government could manipulate the university’s direction.  In the second half of the sixteenth century this was most certainly in the direction of religious orthodoxy as, according to state papers, the Crown put pressure on dissenters ‘from every direction.’  A Crown candidate replaced a well-known Puritan at St John’s, Cambridge, in 1596, and the Queen interceded no less than four times between January and May 1597 alone in proposing preferred individuals for college fellowships.
William Laud, 1573-1645 Royal interference only increased under the Stuarts, and both James I and Charles I would often stay in Woodstock in order to be closer to Oxford.  Crown patronage – in return for obedience – also continued in the first half of the seventeenth century.  However, it was not until the rise of William Laud, appointed Chancellor of Oxford in 1629, and subsequently Archbishop of Canterbury from 1633, that state interference increased to sixteenth century levels.  Like in Elizabethan times the targets were religious non-conformists and the objective was to instate social and religious order.  Laud put a renewed emphasis on the universities’ role in clerical training and he attempted to enforce submission to Arminian theology and an absolute monarchy.  About Oxford he wrote in 1634: ‘This work I hope God will so bless as that it may much improve the honour and good government of that place, a thing very necessary in this life both for Church and Commonwealth; since so many young gentlemen and others of all ranks and conditions have their breeding for the public in that seminary.’   Of the larger Oxford colleges only Queen’s and Exeter avoided Laud’s interference in academic appointments during the 1630s and similar acts were carried out in Cambridge.  Similar kinds of state patronage even continued under Oliver Cromwell’s rule in the 1650s, as the Lord Protector made his chaplain, John Owen, Dean of Christ Church, and his physician, Jonathan Goddard, Warden of Merton.

 Paul Gerbod has claimed that during this period, governments often assumed the part of a ‘teacher-state’, impressing on universities a ‘uniform educational system in line with their political or philosophical aims.’  This view is questionable.  Other than on rare occasions when university curricula were directly tampered with, such as under Whitgift in the 1570s and Archbishop Laud in the 1630s, the state did not assume direct control of university teaching.  On a day-to-day administrative and intellectual basis the universities remained autonomous.  Real power, after all, lay not in the federal university body but in the individual colleges, which were largely materially and intellectually independent.
It was in the indirect influence of royal patronage and endowments that state interference was most felt.  There is an appropriate distinction to be made here, if perhaps merely theoretical, and it does corroborate Gordon Graham’s declaration that regardless of any notion of autonomy, the universities were not free from state interference.  For Graham is not saying that the universities have always been at the behest of the state, like some sort of public institution.  His statement accepts that university autonomy, ‘whatever [it] may mean’, does exist and has existed.  What Graham does acknowledge is that in spite of any such autonomy the universities have never been totally free from the possibility of state interference. 

In the past the state has tended to interfere in university affairs in order to achieve a political or social objective.  The state’s capacity to do this has always been constrained by the university’s own capacity – in other words, its institutional and educational role within society.  During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when the universities were still acting primarily as theological training schools for the Church of England, the parameters existed for the government to use the universities as part of its wider policy of maintaining social order and religious orthodoxy during those turbulent years.  The state’s grip on religious dissent tightened after the Restoration of Charles II in 1660 as a series of measures (informally referred to as the ‘Clarendon Code’ due to their not altogether precise association with the Earl of Clarendon, the king’s chief minister) were enacted in order to strengthen the authority of the Church of England. 

 After the Glorious Revolution of 1688 England entered an age of relative religious and political stability.  It was no longer imperative for the state to attempt to influence university affairs in the way it had done since the English Reformation.  Moreover, the rise of the lay intellectual within the universities and the simultaneous decline in influence of the clergy as England entered a more secular age meant that the universities were not as useful a means of social control as they had previously been. 

  Harold Perkin has claimed that ‘between 1850 and 1930 there took place in England a revolution in higher education…nothing less than the transformation of the university from a marginal institution, an optional finishing school for young gentlemen, into the central power house of modern industrial society.’   In combination with professionalisation, universities became ‘the normal route to high status and income.’

 After 1945 the British postwar settlement, which included the construction of the welfare state, embraced grand aims for greater equality of opportunity and fairness in society.  If universities could function as agents of social mobility then they could usefully be incorporated within government policy to achieve the above aims.  Universities, so the thinking went, should become more open to all members of society, regardless of age, race or gender.  What followed were vast increases in state funding from the University Grants Committee (UGC) under the chairmanship of Sir Keith Murray from 1953-63.  In 1956 the UGC capital programme was £3.8 million; by 1963 it was £30 million, with the promise of even more to come.  During this period seven new universities were added along with the severance of Dundee from St Andrews and Newcastle from Durham.  Student numbers had similarly mushroomed.  The higher education policies of the 1960s Labour governments under Harold Wilson, most notably the creation of the Open University in 1969 (which aimed to provide distance-learning to anyone who desired it) and the binary system of universities and polytechnics, the latter to offer more applied, vocational learning to a meet the growing demand for higher (or further) education.

Here, then, is evidence of changing contexts and changing functions.  The postwar context was one in which British governments proclaimed a far more welfarist and interventionist set of social policy objectives than before.  Functionally, universities were now viewed as agents of social mobility, and therefore appropriate policy tools for achieving policy objectives.  Like in my case study, the British government had not set out directly to threaten university autonomy and, so much as they could, the universities retained a great deal of independence.  This occurred despite a new, twentieth-century version of state patronage – the significantly higher state funding for higher education, which after the Second World War represented over half of the universities’ income.  When a lack of funding began to impose limits to university autonomy in the 1970s this was due to exogenous economic shocks that the government had to weather via severe public expenditure cuts – it was not part of any deliberate strategy to interfere in university affairs.

The universities have always assumed nominal autonomy in their internal affairs.  However, whenever the state has needed to utilize the universities as a political device it has been able to do so through a combination of two policy instruments: patronage and funding.  No matter how much universities in Britain have protested their autonomy, whether in the early modern period or since the Second World War, state interference has been inevitable.  Paul Gerbod makes the following conclusion:

No political system, no matter how democratic, could really accept the total autonomy of the universities.  Though they did retain a certain independence because of traditions often going back to the Middle Ages – that is to an age when universities were organically linked to the Western Christian Church – the universities were compelled to accept under duress more or less severe restrictions on their material and intellectual independence. 

The crucial point to be made is that the universities have accepted ‘restrictions on their material and intellectual independence’ – they have not suffered total loss of material and intellectual independence.  Where autonomy has been curbed it has been restrictive, not destructive, of academic independence.  It has been part of pragmatic state policies.  The parameters for this interaction have changed as society has changed because universities have always been, and always will be, reflections of the society they inhabit.  Their functions follow society’s needs (whether clerical in the Tudor and Stuart era, or more technical and professional in our contemporary era – or, indeed, as agents of social mobility).

 The state has always attempted to interfere in higher education in England and it shall continue to do so, as long as the universities and their role in society are conducive to meeting the policy objectives of the day. 

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Don’t swap the Ivory Tower for a cyber one

Anthony Ridge-Newman 6.00am

The traditional image of the academic is one that is easily caricatured with the art of visualisation. Picture a tweeded professor sat in an ivory tower surrounded by nothing but books and plumes of thought. This will ring true for some readers and for others it will be somewhat of a stereotypical pastiche. Either way, I am sure many readers will have some experience of the ”Ivory Tower”.

The very nature of the academic tradition means that many independent researchers lead solitary working lives. This is especially true for the social sciences and humanities.  Although humans are often the subject of interest, the process of academic abstraction can leave many researchers detached from life outside the insular world of academia. The ivory tower is itself an abstract concept that illustrates how the academic mind can, more often than not, exist in a very different sphere to that of the wider public.

Public engagement that uses interactive internet technologies is becoming increasingly viewed as the answer to the problem of disconnect between academia and the public. Often, blogging, in particular, is seen as a solution. Academic perceptions are beginning to change as public engagement through social media becomes a more familiar part of everyday life.

The once fiercely guarded academic traditions and conventions are loosening to embrace new ways of disseminating ideas to all. The democratising nature of the internet has presented opportunities for academics to communicate with individuals without an Athens login. This is indeed a positive development.

However, the inherent academic disposition can be easily tempted to use blogging as an excuse to merely engage with the public from the comfort of their armchair – thus maintaining some interpersonal disconnect.

Blogging may well facilitate the opening of communication channels that would not otherwise be possible, but it should be no substitute for face-to-face interaction.  Transitioning from the ivory tower to an armchair in a cyber tower does present opportunity for virtual engagement – but the virtual is no substitute for the real thing. The only way to truly engage with people is in person. If academics are to genuinely commit to the call for engagement with the public then they should use social media in order to open communication channels; develop an audience; and disseminate their work to wider audiences; but, ultimately, harness opportunities for public engagement in the offline world.

The History Blogging Project (HBP) is an example of a blog that was developed to facilitate face-to-face engagement, and is a response to the numerous private sector training courses in blogging. The HBP aims to provide training resources for postgraduate historians that promote blogging as a method for public engagement.

The Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) funded project and brainchild of Yolana Pringle, DPhil History Student, University of Oxford is designed to encourage active participation in offline workshops, but also online by enabling historians to create, maintain and publicise a research based blog.

HBP workshops involve educational presentations, open discussions and debates. Social media and email is used to bring together the participants in an academic setting. The eclectic postgraduate historian community is also encouraged submit posts for the HBP’s collaborative blog.  An example of this would be the blog post that I submitted when I attended an HBP workshop earlier this year.

The HBP is a good model for using the internet to facilitate on- and offline public engagement and, with a degree of creativity, the format could be adapted for any audience.

This article was published originally on the LSE’s Impact of Social Sciences blog on 29th July 2011.

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Counting the cost of education

Alexander Pannett 9.12am

The world of British higher education has so far had an eventful 2011.  Student riots, soaring tuition fees and most recently the apoplectic response by many left wing academics to A C Grayling’s proposed £18,000 a year New College of the Humanities, have sown deep divisions amongst the university establishment.  Many have argued that the move towards an American style higher education system marks the death of public education in the UK, while others have countered that it is needed to direct much needed resources into a starved and failing system. 

  I have to confess that I have always leaned against the concept of private education.  I do not believe this stems from envy, nor from the fact that my grammar school’s most important rugby event was the annual grudge match against the nearby public school.  I merely believe that it is a more efficient use of resources to allocate education on meritocratic grounds rather than on a parent’s ability to accumulate capital.  Any economy suffers from diminished productivity when nepotism is rewarded over ability.  A higher education system without private institutions is a much fairer guarantor of equality of opportunity than a two-tier system that entrenches undeserved privilege and undermines social mobility.

However, my own experience of higher education has thrown doubt on my well-meaning principles.  I read History at one of the country’s top universities, expecting to interact and learn from some of the finest academic minds in the country.  Instead, I was rather shocked to find that lectures were banally simple in their content and seminars were “student-led” absurdities, packed with enough people to resemble a small lecture hall.  The only teaching was the occasional stammer of wisdom from a tutor perched insouciantly in the corner, carefully engaged in whatever exotic hot drink their recent research trip had reaped from the department’s funds.

Now, this system is fine if all you need from university is a degree certificate, a lot of good parties and an aptitude for blagging.  But what skills have you actually learnt?  Certainly few that will be of much use to an employer.  This again may have been fine in the halcyon days of yesteryear, but globalisation now means that UK graduates compete in a global marketplace.  A UK student who lacks the skills that an employer is looking for will be caught out early in their career and likely passed over for one of the teeming masses of highly skilled and ambitious Asian and American graduates.

The higher education system needs more resources, fresh ideas and more time for teaching rather than research.  Grayling’s new college allows these pragmatic goals to be achieved.  It will also offer bursaries for poor students from the fees generated from richer students.  This is an excellent idea that if applied to public universities would mean richer families and not taxpayers fund poorer students.  If managed effectively, this would be a much more progressive system than allowing for more affluent sections of society to receive education that is effectively subsidised through the Student Loans Company by poorer taxpayers.

Whilst I still believe that higher education should remain free, in an age of dwindling resources and rampant competition, we must be pragmatic if we are to remain a country of world-class learning.  A university system that shuns innovation and ignores the needs of its students will decline in standards.  A lack of choice and competition breeds complacency and poor results.  However, whilst private institutions should be welcomed as sources of more choice and funding, their widespread adoption as the main method of education is not advisable.  A higher education system that is not progressive and fails to act as a conduit for social mobility will entrench malign and inefficient inequalities in wider society.  Access to higher education must remain a public good for progressive reasons.  Whilst the ideas, funds and choice that private colleges bring will help reverse the decline in university standards, eventually the only true remedy for our universities will be an increase in government spending.

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There’s no easyJet solution to higher education

Nik Darlington 6.00am

I used to work for a strategy consultancy advising universities - amongst other organisations such as car manufacturers, telecoms and big pharma - how to set their prices. The higher education sector was a vastly different challenge, a million miles away from four-door saloons.

Or was it? Whilst there are obvious differences in the purchase decision-making for a university education, it was realised that the actual pricing models could be transferred to HE.

Take a new sports car or breakthrough drug. They both involve one-time, high-risk purchases making the costs of failure very high. These are hugely risk-averse industries that need to get their pricing right from the off, based on robust evidence of price and demand. Similarly, higher education has a long cycle of decision-making (the annual recruitment process) and institutions have to get their pricing right or lose out (see the lesson of Leeds Met). Moreover, there are huge potential costs to the student if they make the wrong university or course decision. Another huge similarity that must be recognised is that like for luxury goods, when choosing a university students are making a ‘lifestyle’ choice which is emotional as well as functional. Pricing has to accommodate these ‘soft’ factors too.

So we brainstormed. We started with the low-hanging fruit then drilled down and really looked under the bonnet. We thought (blue skies only) outside the box. Many water cooler moments later, our door was open to some issues, firmly closed to others. We factored in everything possible, from financial cost to political achievability.

One of the best ideas was to translate ‘bundling’ to the HE context. Not only is it straightforward and very common (think meal deals and broadband with your TV subscription), bundling is also widely practised in US universities. I was very pleased recently to see that Coventry University will be doing just that and bundling “extras” such as printing credits and textbooks within tuition fees.

Other ideas, such as variable fees across ‘product’ (i.e. course) ranges, are also being tried out by several universities from next year, instead of pricing everything at £9,000.

There were some sound business ideas on this strategic staircase that didn’t quite have enough bandwidth - with clients, at least. Surcharges, for instance, are smart on paper and expected in industries like airlines but they struggled to fly with university executives. It is already commonplace in the US and in private universities (such as BPP) in the UK to have add-ons like exam fees and registration charges. As public universities increasingly ape private counterparts, their time might yet come.

Above all, one idea proved impossible to sell: yield management. In its most sophisticated sense, yield management is when businesses like hotels and airlines vary their pricing - often in ‘real time’ - to adapt to changing consumer demand. As we are all aware, the price of an aeroplane ticket varies hugely depending on the popularity of the route, the date you make your booking and how many seats are available. Could this be translated to universities?

This - or a less complex version of it - appears to be what the universities minister, David Willetts, was floating last week, by implying that universities could discount their tuition fees during clearing in order to drive demand for undersold courses. And, to answer the question - could it work? - in one word: “no”.

Offa rules say universities would then also have to discount fees for all students already on affected courses, but of course if the Government wanted to bring this idea to the table then the Offa rules could be altered.

We concluded that yield management could not work in universities principally because of institutional aversion. Like shadow universities minister, Gareth Thomas, I agree that “you can’t treat university like a holiday”. We received a lot of push-back from university executives for this exact reason (though then the comparison most often made was with easyJet and Ryanair). It would be unfair for two students to sit next to each other in the same lecture hall, one having paid £9,000 and the other £6,000, for example. And it would mean that students focused too much on the price tag of a course, instead of a myriad of more important factors such as university reputation, employability, facilities, satisfaction, teaching hours etc.

Overall, what we found is that in a more deregulated tuition fee environment, as now exists, universities must think differently about their pricing and marketing. There are no easy solutions to higher education. That includes easyJet solutions.

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We expect politicians to manipulate statistics but not to lie about them

Nik Darlington 6.06am

Yesterday’s PMQ’s saw David Cameron and Ed Miliband come to blows (again) over NHS hospital waiting lists. Analysis by Full Fact shows that the truth is very much dependent upon how you present and interpret the figures. Both men could claim to be right but only because neither are categorically wrong.

Politicians have always been economical with the truth when it suits them and massaged figures to bolster an argument. It’s not just politicians - businessmen will regularly do something as simple as alter the scale on a chart or graph to paint an entirely different picture to reality. Everyday understanding comes more from perception than actuality.

We have come to expect this behaviour and to guard ourselves from it. Take any politician’s statistic with a pinch of salt, knowing that at worst you are being smartly misled, not cheated.

This makes outright deception more shocking. Occasionally, politicians wilfully mislead the public, such as when Gordon Brown claimed that people wouldn’t lose out from the abolition of the 10p tax rate, or when Johan Hari deceitfully conflated debt and deficit.

Another regrettable act of deception took place in the House of Lords during a debate on tuition fees, on 14 December 2010. Lord Triesman, the Labour peer, clearly stated the following:

"This afternoon’s decision will switch the concept of universities from being a public good, as they have always been through modern history, to essentially a private sector, market-driven by personal private investment.

Stripped back to the realities, this is a 200% starting fee hike and, for most, it will be a 300% increase.

It will result in all probability across the board in about a 300% increase in student debt.”

To go from £3,000 to £9,000 is to make a 200% increase. Why? A 100% increase is to double the figure, e.g. 100% of £3,000 is £3,000, so a 100% increase takes you to £6,000 (£3,000 + £3,000).

Bertrand Russell said of mathematics that we never know what we are talking about, nor whether what we are saying is true. We could give his lordship the benefit of the doubt and accept he might have made an innocent accounting error, rather than flat-out lied with his sums.

Either way, his lordship is not the only culprit - there are many others who have been guilty of this lie. They might just have maths gremlins (but that’s no excuse when this is basic GCSE mathematics). It doesn’t matter - once said, the damage is done. Not only does it wrongly inflate the extent of the increase, it irresponsibly inflates the public debate. Once a lie enters the public sphere, it takes an inhuman effort to make it leave.

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PMQ’s review: Balls up in the Commons, and balls up over university funding

Nik Darlington 1.52pm

We could concentrate on the jokes, of which there were plenty. Ed Miliband was the most obvious target following his out-of-body experience in Hyde Park on Saturday, which has been so piercingly ridiculed by Jack on these pages, Danny Finkelstein in the Times (£) and Iain Martin in the Daily Mail, among many others.

The Prime Minister, referring to the Labour leader’s dishonest economic policies (most conspicuous in their absence), quipped: “I know Martin Luther King said, ‘I have a dream’. I think it’s about time the honourable Gentleman woke up.” Cast your eyes over the Economist's account of the People’s Policy Forum and understand how deep a sleep Labour party members are in too.

David Burrowes (C, Enfield Southgate) even tried to insert a joke into a question about prostate cancer: “Does the Prime Minister, like I do…[pause for effect]…have a dream…?” It was delivered with about as much skill as Phil Tufnell to Craig Macmillan (video) and if anyone in the chamber got it, they didn’t show it.

Later on we witnessed the Prime Minister’s abrupt hosing of Ed Balls, telling the Shadow Chancellor to “shut up and listen to the answer”, then describing him as the “most annoying man in politics”. A rare dropping of the guard by Cameron, who is usually unflappable, which Paul Waugh judged a win for Balls. Possibly, but I think unlikely, not least because it is true. And the Mirror's Kevin Maguire gets it very, very wrong. If the after dinner speeches that Maguire attends feel like PMQs, he’s going to the wrong dinner parties.

Yet joking aside, the point of the hour is universities, which have reappeared as a problem for the Government this week. Ed Miliband, knowing an opportunistic groundswell of public antagonism when he sees it, jumped straight in and questioned the Prime Minister about fees. Labour introduced tuition fees (and the Tories opposed them), came the response. Universities will be judged on access for disadvantaged students. However, a bigger, more immediate problem is that in order to make the university funding policy as palatable as possible to as many people as possible, the Government has not come up with a policy as good as it could have been.

Several reports, such as this one by the Guardian, are suggesting that a £1 billion funding gap is about to hit the higher education sector in the autumn. Whitehall is budgeting for average tuition fees of £7,500, however institutions continue to defy this expectation and the threats of ministers, with Sussex, Liverpool John Moores, Reading, Essex, Liverpool, Surrey and Aston announcing £9,000 fees in recent weeks. Some universities are being more creative, and I highlighted Coventry this morning, but there clearly is a problem.

Sir Simon Jenkins writes a damning indictment today of just about everything to do with the present hoo-hah over higher education. The students who marched and vandalised in London to oppose a rise in fees are “deluded” because the Government has abolished fees; for thirty years “gutless, whining vice-chancellors and boards” have sold their universities’ souls to the state in return for money; Nick Clegg is walking on legal egg-shells by insisting on stringent access quotas; Offa operates “on planet Zog”; Vince Cable, “brain softened by panic”, is indulging in ”a zany inversion of Stalin’s Stakhanovite system”; whilst Ministers and/or Whitehall have utterly failed to do their sums properly.

The solution? Universities should declare their independence from the state, says Jenkins:

"Universities are independent charities. They can charge what they like and call the government’s outreach bluff, should it refuse bursary or loan support. Universities could organise and fund their own scholarships, sell their research in the marketplace, and base their appeal on the quality of their work. Nothing but their addiction to government money is forcing them to toe the Cable line."

Logically, this means accepting Lord Browne’s recommendation to remove the fee cap entirely. This should have been done at the time and Liberal complaints should have been ignored. Any sensible person knows that the higher the headline fees the better the situation for poorer, disadvantaged students. In such a scenario, universities have more money to spend on financial aid and to improve facilities and teaching for everyone. It would end the absurd middle-class subsidy for university education, paid for by ordinary taxpayers. The current arrangement - “a new departure in fiscal socialism”, says Jenkins - is a good deal for the poorest but uncapped fees would have been better.

I don’t believe that universities will go their own way and on balance I don’t believe that they should. Irrespective, only a handful could manage it in the overnight fashion that Jenkins suggests. Any cursory glance at a random university’s financial accounts will bear that out.

I do believe that, although flawed, the Government’s plans are better than the existing situation. They are fairer and more progressive, as well as being infinitely preferable to supposed alternatives such as free university education or graduate taxes. Yet the Government appears to have failed in its efforts to shift the burden of funding from the state to the (able to pay) student. Ministers, including the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister, are now trying to cover up the mistakes by guilt-tripping universities into rigid access agreements at the threat of fines.

Instead, the Government should recognise the situation it has created for what it is - merely another (improved) staging post between the grant-heavy higher education sector that Labour inherited in 1997 and a sector that is state-backed but not state-funded nor state-run. With that recognition must come the acceptance that universities will be reliant on taxpayers’ money, and plenty of it, for some time to come.

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