In praise of £9,000-per-year university tuition fees

Matthew Plummer 10.58am

Children in their last year of school are gearing up for what one contemporary Scottish philosopher calls ‘squeaky bum time’. A-level exams in the summer suddenly don’t seem so far away, and shortly the contents of acceptance and rejection letters from institutions will start being broadcast in Facebook status updates up and down the country. 

The deadline for art and design schools is later this month, and last week I had coffee with a student I mentor to look at her portfolio and university application. Her work showed plenty of promise, but as we talked I realised that while she was desperate to do a photography degree, she wasn’t particularly interested in using it as the foundation for a career taking pictures – she just liked the idea of studying photography, and would do something different after her graduation.

She’s by no means alone. We have a large number of students in creative tertiary education, many of whom realise during their studies that enjoying something at A-level (often taken as an alternative to boring ‘academic’ subjects) isn’t enough to sustain them through the long hours of working in the studio at their university. Others quickly find out that that their work simply doesn’t cut the mustard when they enter the saturated graduate marketplace. And – being completely blunt – the tertiary sector’s vast oversupply of creative graduates unable to work in areas where their degree have prepared them for is nothing short of scandalous. 

To someone with a rose-tinted view of the whole university experience this probably sounds harsh. University is about growing up, finding one’s feet in the world, etc. Yet the ease in justifying a degree in the creative arts is symptomatic of the distance we have yet to travel in shifting society’s attitudes towards tertiary education.

The wretched ‘50 per cent of school leavers going to university’ aspiration was a misplaced and profoundly damaging New Labour ploy to seduce parents. It was also politically very smart: ‘thanks to the government my child is the first in our family to have a university education’.

The policy flooded the workforce with graduates, and sent a clear signal to students that choosing not to do degrees made them second best.

At the drop of a hat sixth formers saw areas like photography that really should only be one or two years in duration as the gateway to the newly hallowed university education – albeit in a technical subject that doesn’t give them the transferrable skills and intellectual rigour that employers associate with degrees in subjects like history or geography. Private schools also need to take some of the blame: it’d be a rare headmaster who tells parents that their child isn’t university material having taken £150,000 in fees over the past five years. Better a degree in photography, music journalism, etc, than no degree at all, or so their logic flows. 

The danger is that students are supposedly now paying for the bulk of their education. Fundamentally this is a good thing: America’s dominance of the top 100 universities is plainly and inescapably due to their system of fees – not my analysis, but that of Tony Blair in his autobiography, who (rightly) points out that when it comes to recruiting academic staff “those who paid top dollar got the best”.

Tuition fees also address the small matter of successive governments failing to fund universities properly. And as a Head of Sixth Form friend of mine pointed out, “if you’re not intelligent enough to realise that £9,000 a year to go to a top Russell Group university is a bargain, then you really shouldn’t be applying to those places in the first place”.

The scrum of blue chip firms recruiting on Britain’s top campuses hammers home the value of forking out for the best education the UK can offer, and the new fee levels will help ensure that graduates from UCL, Cambridge, etc, can expect their qualifications to stack up globally (with salaries to match) and help ensure our universities continue to churn out world leading research.

Incidentally, as someone who mentors students in two of South London’s most deprived schools, I was really pleased to hear from the teachers there that the new fees structure and bursary support is more favourable for those from less affluent backgrounds than the previous government’s scheme – which is exactly as it should be. Nevertheless I remain to be convinced that many of the wide-eyed UCAS applicants for photography and music journalism degrees will actually find that their three years of undergraduate study has transformed their employment prospects.

More importantly, will their studies enable them to repay much of the £18-£27k in tuition fees that they’ve taken on, full of enthusiasm for whatever creative A-level subject they dabbled in at school? Or will they find they’ve been sold a pup by institutions who are desperate to prop up their student rolls with courses of dubious value? It’s interesting to hear Pam Tatlow of the Million+ think-tank (representing many former polytechnics) describe this year’s small increase in university applications as a “recovery”, whereas the market behaviour from this year’s students seems to indicate that for some of the institutions Million+ represents the decrease in rolls of 50-60% could well be terminal. And while this plays out the Treasury’s exposure to the student debt it underwrites grows and grows – after all, the government pays for your education until you’re actually in a position to reimburse it.

So where does this leave my enthusiastic photography student? Higher student fees are here to stay – Mr Blair himself saying that “once introduced as a concept, there [is] no looking back”.

For some disciplines this must surely spell trouble for the idea of three year degrees. The higher end providers of vocational courses will flourish, but institutions without the cachet of the Slade and LCC may well have to rethink how they deliver education to increasingly savvy consumers. Photography, journalism, graphic design, etc. are hardly lucrative careers, so the American concept of shorter ‘associate’  degrees for some vocational and creative subjects seems very sensible: students avoid the £10-15k involved with a third year of study, and employers provide the final polish in the initial stages of paid employment.

My student wants to experience tertiary study, so understandably a single year course doesn’t appeal. I did a two-year photography diploma in New Zealand, and by the end of it I was desperate to finish and get stuck into winning clients and getting proper commissions, as well as avoid an expensive third year – the money saved being more than enough to buy a decent studio setup.

Why is it then that our creative universities stubbornly persist with courses that seem aimed at lining their own pockets and propping up a ill-conceived system? Sure, politicians and society at large need to take some responsibility for fostering the often dubious allure of ‘going to uni’, but there’s a horrible irony in institutions aimed at nurturing creativity being so painfully regimented and unoriginal in what they offer today’s young talent – and cheerfully milking them dry at the same time.

Matthew Plummer is a commercial photographer. Follow him on Twitter @mwyp

PMQs review: Score draw but the Prime Minister’s arsenal is worryingly bare

Jack Blackburn 2.08pm

The Government’s fortunes and the composure of its ministers have crumbled over recent months, though it is worth noting that the Leader of the Opposition’s polling numbers have still not managed to match his party’s.

So as we arrived at the first PMQs since April we found a leadership vacuum, created by a Government in disarray, a Prime Minister under pressure from all sides, and a Labour party leader seemingly unable to act like a leader.

This PMQs also took place in a very different context to the last. Disastrous local election results (London’s Mayor aside) for the Coalition parties still sting. The national economy seems to have tumbled into a double-dip recession. We are being badly buffeted by continuing turmoil in the Eurozone, where an anti-austerity Frenchman has just taken up residence in the Élysée palace and Greece is crippled by political upheaval.

To use a recent (and for me painful) sporting illustration, the leaders were level on points going into today’s match, with Mr Miliband ahead on goal difference. This was a mid-term fixture rather than an end-of-season cliff-hanger, but it as was scrappy, messy and confused as the Premier League’s climax, if nowhere near as exciting too.

Mr Miliband has plenty of arsenal at his disposal at the moment. Dreadful growth figures, unhappy nurses, protesting police officers, the controversial Leveson Inquiry, electoral reverses and the seemingly changing political breeze in Europe should have meant that Mr Cameron was in for a torrid time at the Despatch Box. Nevertheless, there was a crumb of comfort for the Prime Minister today in the form of falling unemployment.

Mr Cameron began by using this to his advantage, welcoming a question from his own backbenches, but stressing (as all the Cabinet has done this morning) that the Government is not complacent. There is more to be done. Etcetera. And for once, Mr Miliband also welcomed good economic news, but was quick to try to press home some advantage by questioning what discussions the PM had taken part in with President Hollande about growth plans for France and Europe.

The answer could have simply been, “Well, haven’t really spoken to him since he was elected.” So Edward suggested a text message with “LOL” in it would probably be sufficient. Uncharacteristically funny, and well delivered.

In fact, Mr Miliband’s entire style of performance has improved immensely. He is calm, considered and no longer whiny. Nonetheless, Mr Cameron remains an adept performer himself, and responded strongly: “I may well have used my mobile phone too much, but at least as Prime Minister I know how to use one rather than just throw it at those who work with me”. The Rt Hon Member for Kirkcaldy was, as usual, nowhere to be seen.

Mr Miliband was indeed more impressive today, though still blew it by failing once again to capitalise effectively on the Prime Minister’s all-too-evident woes. He left the economy debate too quickly, so eager was he to cram in questions on policing and nurses, while also failing to pose a question on his sixth time of coming. The eyes were bigger than his abilities.

Yet Mr Cameron also fumbled the ball today, particularly with his final response to his opponent, when he attempted to criticise Labour’s new policy supremo John Cruddas as someone too close to the trades unions. At moments such as those, one realises just how little ammunition the Prime Minister has at his disposal.

MPs and peers launch new all-party group for apprentices

Nik Darlington 11.47am

I have just been to the inaugural meeting of the APPG for Apprentices, which is to be chaired by the Lib Dem MP for Burnley, Gordon Birtwhistle.

The straight-talking 68-year-old Birtwhistle is an appropriate choice to lead the new all-party group, having begun his working life as an apprentice engineer in the 1950s.

What surprises me is why MPs have waited until now to set up such a group. Apprentices have been strong on the parliamentary radar, with the Government investing much time, effort and resources in expanding apprenticeship opportunities and numerous MPs now employing their own apprentices.

A jokey verbal joust even broke out between two of the group’s newly appointed vice-chairmen about who had been the first MP to employ an apprentice. Guy Opperman (C, Hexham) pronounced it to have been him, though this was contested by Catherine McKinnell (Lab, Newcastle-upon-Tyne North), the shadow solicitor-general. Proof that competition in the public sector is a healthy thing?

Whoever of the two is right, the number of MPs employing apprentices in Parliament and in their constituencies is large and growing, thanks in no small part to the efforts of the Parliamentary Academy, an organisation set up not so long ago by Conservative MP Rob Halfon and the journalist Martin Bright.

The Government has been offering incentive payments to businesses to encourage the taking on of apprentices. The policy has created hundreds of thousands of apprenticeship places already and it is hoped further tens of thousands will be created over the next year. As evidence of the effect the policy is having, the number of people starting apprenticeships increased by more than 60 per cent in 2010-11, to a total of 457,200.

Much has been done but with youth unemployment such a concern, clearly more needs to be done. As Mr Birtwhistle said today, still too often youngsters see apprenticeships as something you do if you fail to get into university. On the contrary, he said robustly, “universities should be what you go to if you fail to get an apprenticeship!”

Information, advice and guidance about the apprenticeship route needs to be better and more widely available, something mentioned today by Stella English, a former winner of the BBC’s The Apprentice.

So an all-party group for apprentices is long overdue, and it is not quite off the ground yet, but it is a very encouraging step in the right direction and Egremont wishes it all the very best.

The Government says we’re all in it together. We must prove it.

Jason Frost 6.00am

“In one of the biggest surveys of the British public, Lord Ashcroft concluded that the ‘party of the rich’ label is still the biggest barrier for the Conservative’s target voters. There is a north-south divide gap too. The Tories are doing less well in Northern England than they were when Margaret Thatcher was elected. Mr Cameron cannot be blamed for this but….he is responsible for recent decisions that have begun to recontaminate the brand. Voters, for example, are most anxious about jobs and incomes but the Coalition spends much time talking about the deficit.”

So wrote Tim Montgomerie in the Times recently (£). Some people feel betrayed by the Government, and consequently the painstakingly reconstructed brand of Conservatism is again beginning to slide back to being just the uncaring ‘party of the rich’.

This can only result in electoral oblivion and historic irrelevance. Such a prospect has of course threatened before. The former Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli wrote in Sybil (1845) of:

“Two nations; between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts, and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets; who are formed by different breeding, fed by different food, ordered by different manners and are not governed by the same laws. They are the RICH and the POOR.”

Many a commentator would do well to hold these words in hallowed reverence, for their meaning reflects all too well the perceived social and economic climate of today.

And yet, it is in these words that could lie the Government’s, but more importantly Conservatism’s, potential salvation.

These ‘Two Nations’ must once again be reforged into one; One Nation under the trusted leadership of the Government.

How? Our modern ‘Poor’ must once again be understood by ‘the Rich’, but in a respectful, as opposed to paternalist, sense of mind. This ‘Rich’ - as the Government puts it, those with the “broadest shoulders” - must offer hope and leadership in all areas, and a good starting place would be financially, as Mr Montgomerie quite rightly suggested.

"When tax cuts become affordable, low income households should be at the front of the queue. Lower petrol duty and National Insurance must come before a cut in the 50p tax rate…. The tax system needs rebalancing… Extra taxes on high-end properties should fund emergency tax relief for families hurt by inflation.”

Through such acts ‘the Rich’ will have shown some element of dutiful, and very responsible, sacrifice in these times. It would demonstrate the Government’s changed, moral priorities.

In addition, the Government should bring forward and champion some of the measures they have already floated but are yet to implement.

The appointment of worker representation to the management and remuneration boards/committees of leading companies. This would subject decisions to greater accountability and improve industrial relations through more direct contact between shop-floor and boardroom (in contrast to the mediated contact through Trades Unions).

There must be more active encouragement of individual, as opposed to corporate, endowments to universities, e.g. scholarships or sponsorship, contributions to hospitals, and even to the funding of apprenticeships and enterprises in the private sector by individuals.

The coalition’s mantra, ‘We are all in this together’, is exactly the right call to the nation. It stresses our united nature. But it is time it was backed up with actions.

This EU referendum debate is self-indulgent and wrong

Nik Darlington 3.45pm

On BBC Radio Scotland this morning, I said that while a sizeable number of Conservative backbenchers threatening to defy the Government over the EU debate today is not surprising - this is a markedly eurosceptic parliamentary party - what would be surprising is if the eventual rebellion is such a high number.

Since then, rumours and moods have swung to-and-fro, but it is no more clearer what will happen. Several Conservative MPs are witholding from making a decision until they have heard the debates and, in particular, whether the Eustice amendment is tabled. That is going to be crucial and indications are that it will not be.

The Prime Minister has stood resolutely behind his original view. The show of strength has certainly impressed many MPs but perhaps not enough to change their minds on what they, rightly or wrongly, view as a matter of conscience and constitutional importance.

The Government’s failing is not to take this position, it is to fail to make its case clearly and to communicate it to Conservative MPs and the wider country. Party management has been lacking and, as James Forsyth indicates on Coffee House, the whipping operation has come up very short indeed. The position, however, is correct. The proportion of British citizens who say Europe is a priority issue can be counted in single figure percentages.

The Tory Reform Group takes the view that with unemployment, inflation and low growth figures threatening the lives and jobs of people up and down the country, this moment of dire financial crisis is not the time to re-open a debate on Britain’s membership of the EU.

TRG chairman Tim Crockford said:

All of us agree that the EU needs reform but whatever the strongly held view of some, this is simply the wrong time for such a debate.

David Cameron has moved the Conservative party into the centre ground of British politics - he has made us electable again. This debate is self-indulgent and wrong. The Conservative party has historically put the national interest above party interest. It did so to form the Coalition. It must do so again. It is time to remember that we are a party of government now and must behave like it.

George Osborne is a Man with a Plan

David Cowan 6.00am

Last Wednesday, Fraser Nelson, editor of The Spectator, offered the prize of a bottle of Pol Roger to the person who could best explain George Osborne’s growth strategy. Herein David Cowan’s contribution. If David wins, he’ll get a second bottle of Sir Winston’s favourite bubbly from us at Egremont. Good luck!

George Osborne is a man with a plan. He is also a Conservative Chancellor in a coalition government at a time of financial turmoil not seen since the 1930s.

However, he is also a shrewd political operator, who managed to use his Inheritance Tax pledge to call Gordon Brown’s bluff in 2007 and opposed Alistair Darling’s NIC increase in order to give the Conservatives some momentum in 2010. George Osborne has managed to construct a growth strategy which accommodates the Liberal Democrats, includes political electioneering for a Conservative majority in 2015 and will hopefully rebuild the British economy.

The absolute bedrock of his growth strategy is to keep long-term interest rates low. That is why he is trying to eliminate the structural deficit by 2015 in a way which is fiscally responsible, i.e. through public spending cuts and modest tax increases. Keeping interest rates down will ensure that people can still borrow at German style costs while the country has a Greek style debt, and so the markets will maintain their confidence in Britain as a safe haven.

Dovetailing with his efforts to keep long-term interest rates low George Osborne has been trying to get credit flowing back into the British economy. The Bank of England’s second round of quantitative easing (QE) and holding the bank rate at 0.5 per cent represent a large part of this. However, George Osborne has also managed to contribute by pulling off the major Project Merlin deal with the banks in order to get them lending again.

However, it is not just the deficit which George Osborne has inherited from Labour. After 13 years of Labour misrule Britain has fallen to 22nd in the world ranking of the most competitive countries. The Chancellor is now on a crusade to put Britain back at the front of the pack.

This has led to serious efforts at supply side reforms which include cutting corporation tax to the lowest rate in the OECD, introducing the zero-rating of business rates in 21 new enterprise zones and simplifying the longest tax code in the civilised world. The coalition government has also introduced a new ‘Employer’s Charter’ as part of a Whitehall review of employment legislation, the ‘one in, one out’ rule is in place, small businesses are being exempted from domestic regulations for the next three years, and our antiquated planning system is being radically reformed.

Another part of this crusade to create a new ‘enterprise culture’ is to regenerate Britain’s ailing infrastructure and maintain the capital investment which will help sustain small businesses and create jobs. Obvious examples include High Speed Rail 2, Crossrail, and the extension of the broadband network, all of which will help to integrate all of Britain’s regions into a more balanced economy. Human capital is also being nurtured by the 500,000 new apprenticeships, new vocational training centres, more schools and greater science development.

George Osborne’s growth strategy is also ensuring that it is the least well-off who have more money in their pockets and that the rich pay their fair share during this ‘age of austerity’. That is why the personal allowance is being increased, Council Tax is being frozen again and fuel duty was cut, while the 50p tax rate is staying, capital gains tax was increased and new taxes have been slapped onto big banks and oil companies. As for the controversial VAT increase, it is a necessary measure which will raise more revenue, at a minimal cost to the economy, for paying back the debt and protecting the schools budget and real terms increase in NHS spending.

George Osborne’s strategy for growth is a clear and coherent set of policies based on the need to encourage a new competitive ‘enterprise culture’ by providing low long-term interest rates and cheap credit, a vibrant national infrastructure, lower business taxes and less red tape.

The Liberal Democrats have placed serious restraints on the options available to him, but if he successfully manages to deliver a healthy economic recovery in 2015 then he will be able to grant the generous tax cuts which many are calling out for now and gain all the credit in the process. This is a pragmatic and solidly fiscal conservative strategy which will pay off if George Osborne stays the course amid the current financial storm.

And if he is very very lucky.

Follow David on Twitter @david_cowan

Does Compassionate Conservatism still have a place in a poorer Britain?

Alexander Pannett 6.45am

The worsening economic forecasts have suggested that the age of austerity could be a much longer period than first envisaged.  The UK economy has grown by only 0.1 per cent in the second quarter and unemployment has risen to its highest level in 17 years.

Outside the UK, the erratic movement of unfettered global capital continues, as no state appears to be safe from the jitters of speculation.  Even China, up to now the main hope of global economic revival, has seen its CDS spreads widen to an unprecedented amount.

With this economic gloom acting as the backdrop to the recent Conservative party conference in Manchester, David Cameron was at pains to remind his party and the country at large of his original project to “de-toxify” the Tory brand by emphasising the Conservative party’s compassionate side.

But with such little money at its disposal and the severest public expenditure cuts since 1945, can the Tories truly convince the electorate that it is no longer the ‘nasty party’?

The reality is that the terms that have defined Compassionate Conservatism must change to fit the needs of the people it attempts to help.  Right now, people do not want concern for their plight.  They want the security of employment.  Minor policy initiatives that might put a little extra money in people’s pocket are admirable but they are no substitute for the salvation that a job brings.  Mr Cameron should demonstrate his compassion by doing all he can to bring jobs to deprived areas. The Government’s Enterprise Zones initiative in economically disadvantaged areas is a strong step in the right direction.

David Cameron must not make the economist’s mistake of seeing GDP growth rates as indicative of increased employment or of a rejuvenated society.  This recession has exacerbated the widening gap between rich and poor.  Mr Cameron should take no comfort in strong economic growth in already affluent regions of the UK, which acts as a mirage of economic and social wellbeing.  For him truly to govern as a Compassionate Conservative he must bring opportunity to those areas that are economically and socially disadvantaged.

The Government should invest in infrastructure in those areas in order to inject direct capital expenditure, which will lead to jobs.  In a recession this is an effective way of supporting a region, while Enterprise Zones encourage private companies to invest locally.  The Government could spin-off parts of Lloyds and RBS into a national bank that lends directly to small and medium sized companies and encourage growth in disadvantaged areas.

The Government should cut regulation that dissuades companies from setting up in disadvantaged areas.  Ministers should also do more to move civil servants from economically buoyant regions such as the South East to more deprived regions, such as the North East.  Planning laws in disadvantaged areas should be made as flexible as possible, without taking unnecessary risks with the environment, to prevent hindrances to economic development.

Lastly, the Government could do more to reverse the ‘brain drain’ out of deprived areas towards the South East of England.  As well as using Enterprise Zones to offer tax incentives to companies, it should also consider lowering income taxes for individuals in regions with long-term unemployment. Or even income tax holidays.

Compassion must bring real opportunity to those in socio-economically disadvantaged areas.  Empathy without action will not fill stomachs nor will it fill hearts with hope of a better tomorrow.

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PMQs review: Miliband spurns another chance to make PM’s life miserable

Jack Blackburn 2.55pm

The chances of today’s PMQs going well for David Cameron were roughly similar to the chances that Scotland faced against Spain yesterday.

After a torrid week of deepening scandal surrounding Liam Fox and depressing unemployment figures this morning, the PM needed a minor miracle.

Fortunately, his opponent is Ed Miliband, who walked into the chamber with enough political ammunition to make the next few minutes of Mr Cameron’s life a misery, and yet he managed to make them merely a fleeting inconvenience.

What actually happened was that the two leaders started to read out précises of their conference speeches to each other, the Leader of the Opposition having decided to use the unemployment figures as yet another proof that the Government’s economic strategy isn’t working. David Cameron said that the figures were “disappointing” but that it would be foolish to abandon the plan which had given us record low interest rates.

Mr Miliband demanded that the PM take responsibility, which was a rather extraordinary thing to demand. No one can claim that Mr Cameron had shirked his responsibilities at any point, and he responded by cutting through the waffle and bringing it all down to the question of deficit reduction.

Edward said that the government didn’t have a credible plan for growth. Dave said neither did the Opposition, citing the doubts of Alistair Darling and Charles Clarke about the Labour party’s economic policies.

And so this tedious game of back-and-forth went on. Edward had endless quotations from Conservatives who doubted the Government’s plan. Dave could match him blow for blow. Ed had endless dispiriting figures. Dave had his positive figures.

Edward landed a rare hit by pointing to the failure of the National Insurance holiday (the Chancellor hoped it would benefit 400,000 business, but only 7,000 have taken part); but he shot himself in the foot by saying that it had been his actions that prompted energy companies to change their ways, a comment so fanciful in every way that Dave was able to get some points back by comparing Edward to Walter Mitty.

Meanwhile Liam Fox was absent (with merciful leave) in Paris. Edward must have forgotten this, as he glanced towards his non-existant quarry on the front bench. But Dr Fox was a ghostly figure in the chamber, hovering over the leaders’ exchanges.

Subsequent questions ensued about Fox-Werrity, often from MPs doing their best impressions of headless chickens. Nia Griffith (Lab, Llanelli) asked for a list of all meetings by Government ministers with Adam Werrity since the election, whether on official or even social business. Social meetings? Werrity had suddently become a name whose utterance was akin to that of “Voldemort”. Accusing eyes flitted across the chamber at the sound of it, as if to say “I saw you in the same queue as him at Starbuck’s once. You’re complicit too.”

All of this was positively enjoyable after the dirge of the leaders’ exchanges. The Prime Minister should have been put to the sword by the Labour leader today, but he escaped with a narrow defeat, because Edward is incapable of judging his delivery, or delivering his judgement, well. Every word he says is fighting an election campaign that is nearly four years distant.

Severe doubts exist about the Government’s strategy. However, at least they have a complete plan. British people continue to lose jobs while these two and their front benches repeat the same, tired catchphrases.

Sessions like today’s inspire little confidence that these men actually have any ability to arrive at better ideas than they have at present. After all, neither of them claim to have found the perfect solution, but rather than work for improvement, they’re relying on hope.

David Cameron is hoping for recovery and good fortune, but with his lack of real policy detail, the question must be asked: what is Edward hoping for?

Follow Jack on Twitter @BlackburnJA