Sunday, 24 October 2010

To Cap Or Not To Cap?

Today both Nick Clegg and Vince Cable have made noises to the effect that there will be some kind of cap placed on tuition fees, contrary to the advice given in the Browne Report earlier this month. It is initially thought this cap could be around £12,000, the level at which the Government would've started penalising universities anyway.

A victory for students? I'm not sure.

Removing the cap at the current level to allow for a reduction in funding to universities is an unpopular decision. It also looks likely to deter students from going into higher education. Now to some people this isn't completely a bad thing: the country is over-stretched as it is with graduates who offer little practical application to society once they leave university. However, the merits of individual courses aren't the issue here. What I'm wondering at the moment is whether we should be raising the cap to £12,000 instead of scrapping it altogether.

I know removing the cap is an unpopular idea but tripling it could be as costly to students. Isn't it likely that universities, eager to recoup their losses from their battering in the Spending Review, will raise their fees as a unit? All of a sudden even an education at a below-par institution could cost a fortune.

Of course, we expect there to be a lot of auditing of universities to ensure they are worth the fees they are charging. But how reliable are these procedures going to be? Considering the Government's attitude towards quangos isn't it likely that surveillance of fees will pass straight into the pocket of some harassed junior minister already struggling to deal with everything else thrown at his department?

I don't think the cap should be moved from its current level. Or, if it is, it should just be an upward nudge of perhaps £1000. However, if the cap is removed and a marketplace is created in the higher education sector then students will have the opportunity to choose. There will still be some universities who keep their fees relatively low to attract the less well-off. Equally, there will be competition between the prestigious universities: they will have to battle each other for their students and this process should demonstrate value for money.

I'm a little undecided here. I don't want the cap raised, I'd prefer it not to be moved at all. But if it must move I'd prefer it to be removed completely. What Clegg and Cable are doing in their pacification of disgruntled Lib Dems might just make the situation worse.

Friday, 22 October 2010

Iain Duncan Smith - Ignoring the Human Element

Iain Duncan Smith has irritated me today - and probably half the nation.

His comments, harking back to Norman Tebbit thirty years ago, have suggested that the next step in his battle to wean people off welfare will be to send them to jobs potentially several hours away. This is an excerpt from the interview:

There are jobs. They may not be absolutely in the town that you are living in. That's the key point. They may be in a neighbouring town... My point was, you need to recognise that the jobs don't always come to you, sometimes you need to go to the job.

Now, on principle, I agree.

I spent six months commuting from Darlington to Stockton by train with a significant walk to the station at the Darlington end. I was temping whilst studying for my MA in Middlesbrough and was happy to land any job to keep me going. I started work at 8:30 and routinely set off before 7:00. It was a tad cold on those winter mornings but I had my Ipod and a book for the train. It worked out fine, even on the two nights of the week when I had to continue my day onto Middlesbrough and study until 9:00 PM. I think I complained of exhaustion on more than one occasion but I got through it because I knew it wasn't forever.

Perhaps that's the point. I'm not sure if IDS expects such a working situation to be long-term but your life could start to suffer as a result if he does. I'm lucky. I didn't have childcare arrangements or a mortgage (I paid my rent upfront at the beginning of the year). My household bills, my food and my transport costs were all I had to worry about. However, I was lucky.

If you're in a situation where both halves of a couple have a lengthy commute to work then surely extra childcare comes into play? This is notoriously expensive, particularly after-hours. Some people are lucky enough to have family to help out: many haven't. There is no guarantee that when travel costs and extra items such as childcare are deducted from the commuter's wage that they will actually be better off than they were on benefits. Bear in mind that train fares are set to soar and bus subsidies have been cut.

Admittedly, we're in a sticky situation. There is no quick fix and individuals are going to have to make difficult decisions for some time to come. One of these may be commuting to the next town until things settle down. But how long can families sustain this? More importantly, will there be jobs to go to?

It does come down to a desire to take control of your own life and finances. I am wholeheartedly in favour of this. However, the point where the politicians are failing at the moment is when they persist in lumping the idle scroungers together in one category with the people who have genuinely assessed these options.

There needs to be a human element considered when politicians make these sweeping statements. As we've seen with George Osbourne in the last few days, the human element is usually sadly lacking from their consideration.