Tuition Fees – General Election Spring 2010 – Cambridge

Monday, April 12th, 2010. 12:56pm

Tuition fees were thought to be a key factor during the last general election in Cambridge. The next parliament may well take key decisions on the subject so I think it is an area where it is important the candidate’s views are clear. I am publishing videos outlining my own views, as well as the views of the main party candidates. Click the YouTube logo in the bottom right corner of the videos to view them individually.

Will the Main Party Candidates in Cambridge Commit to Opposing Tuition Fees in the Next Parliament?

  • Tony Juniper – Green Party – Yes
  • Julian Huppert – Liberal Democrats – Yes (Though this was questioned)
  • Daniel Zeichner – Labour – No
  • Nick Hillman – Conservative – No
  • Martin Booth – Cambridge Socialists – Yes

Key Points

  • Labour’s Daniel Zeichner has said he is in favour of tuition fees, saying that “I’ve never understood why it is OK for working class people, essentially poor people, to subsidise middle class education”. I think that’s a shocking indictment of the state of the country, and highlights the fact that thirteen years of Zeichner’s new Labour party have left us in a position where entrance to our universities isn’t on the basis of academic merit. Zeichner has said he is opposed to an increase in fees.
  • The Conservative’s Nick Hillman has refused to state a position on tuition fees in advance of the results of a review into Higher Education funding; he has said that in his view a Cambridge University student paying £7,000 per year would getting good value for money, yet he has appeared to contradict this saying the moment he wouldn’t support an increase in fees until we know how that money might be spent. He has said he has no problem with a Graduate Tax.
  • It is clear the Liberal Democrat Julian Huppert is personally opposed to tuition fees, the question raised by his opponents and others focuses on the details and what the Liberal Democrat policy is. Labour’s Zeichner has noted: “The Liberal Democrats have been in chaos over this policy for the last couple of years and it continues”.
  • Tony Juniper of the Green Party has said: “Tuition fees are excluding a large number of people in this country who won’t go to university because they don’t wish to incur the debt”, and has said he would like to see the reintroduction of student grants.

Overall I think we’ve got a lack of clarity and fence-sitting, not only from the Liberal Democrats where we would expect it, but from Labour and the Conservative here in Cambridge too.

My View

I am passionately opposed to undergraduate tuition fees for UK students doing their first degrees. I think that access to university education ought be on merit, access to university should not be limited to those prepared pay huge fees or get into enormous debt. I also oppose a graduate tax; students shouldn’t be deterred from going to university, considering if that decision might end up costing them dearly for the rest of their lives.

As with many other areas of the public sector the Labour government has pumped huge sums of, in this case public money, and students money, into universities. The big thing this has bought is a huge increase in the number of young people going to university. While I too want to see as many young people as possible going to university – simply expanding the number of places is not in my view the right way to go about it. We’ve got a situation where we’re aiming to get 50% of young people to go to university yet less than 50% get 5 A-C GCSEs. We need to focus on improving education for younger people before we’ve got a base on which to justify such high levels of university education.

It’s important to keep hold of what’s made UK university education great, and what’s made it such a valuable export commodity if we’re going to be able to keep bringing in money from abroad by selling access to it. If we’re going to keep the quality of UK higher education high we need to keep the entry standards high. We also need to keep university education closely related to cutting edge research. University is not just an extension of school. Good quality education isn’t necessarily expensive to provide in many subjects.

Tuition fees were expected to drive up standards in universities; this didn’t happen. Making students “consumers” didn’t work; I think what we need to do is strengthen students’ unions. We need to ensure that students, and staff at universities are free to speak out and free to keep standards high at their institutions.

Many people point to the high cost of undergraduate education at Cambridge University as small group supervisions are very expensive. If graduate researchers, those working towards PhDs were employed (rather than receiving a tax free studentship) and as part of their contract were required to teach that would help enormously as well as solve a wide range of other problems in one go. I think the link between teaching and research ought start at the level of graduate researchers.

High levels of personal debt are a real problem in the UK; massive societal effects as people can’t afford to buy homes, can’t afford to start families. There is a huge imbalance in society with so many younger people in debt, living in inadequate homes, and not being able to live the lives they want to lead. Funding university tuition fully out of general taxation is one way we can help address those problems.

I see scrapping tuition fees as being about investing in young people, investing in the future of the UK and preparing us to compete in the world in the long term.

Views of the Candidates put up by the Main Parties in Cambridge

Despite being an education expert – working for the shadow higher education spokesman – Nick Hillman the Conservative candidate won’t be drawn on his views on tuition fees. He’s saying he’ll wait for the results of the current review into Higher Education Funding. He has said that he feels UK students would be getting good value if they paid £7,000 a year for a Cambridge University education.

Liberal Democrat Julian Huppert is personally strongly opposed to tuition fees. His party though has been inconsistent on the issue and he’s very much a party man. He’s signed up to a pledge saying he’ll support a “fairer alternative” but hasn’t said what that might be. I think a graduate tax might be just as much of a deterrent to good people going to university as high tuition fees, and would also take us away from a meritocracy. I’ve seen that Cambridge University students have recently elected a student union president who supports a graduate tax, so there is some support for that in the city, I don’t think those who voted in that election made the right choice there.

Labour’s Daniel Zeichner is from the party which made a manifesto promise not to bring in tuition fees then did so anyway. He represents the party pouring huge amounts of money into the public sector and not being interested in getting good value in return, he and his party are about expanding participation but without maintaining quality. He has committed not to support an increase in tuition fees if elected, but he has also said he doesn’t think that poor people should subsidise middle class education – I think that’s an astounding view – and doesn’t reflect the reality of society as a whole funding university education on the basis of merit really amounts to.

Tony Juniper of the Greens and the socialists want to go further than scrapping tuition fees and bring back grants. Particularly as they lack a focus on quality and targeting the investment where it will be of most use to society I think their proposals are barmy.

None of the candidates are saying what I want to hear:

  • None are focusing on quality in higher education.
  • None are focusing on ensuring there’s nothing working to prevent the best people going to university and access to university is genuinely on academic merit.
  • None are daring to say that the Labour government’s massive, expensive, expansion of university education has been detrimental to quality and has been carried out before the solid foundation in basic education such a step would have needed was in place.

I’m worried none of the party candidates will be pushing to get the best value for the public money which is invested in higher education, and none are considering what’s best for Cambridge, for Cambridge’s universities and what’s best for the economic future of the UK. Its not scrapping tuition fees which is the economically irresponsible thing to do in my view; I think it would be irresponsible to carrying on subsidising a university education for those who’ve scraped 5 C grade GCSEs and not to focus on meritocracy and excellence.

11 comments/updates on “Tuition Fees – General Election Spring 2010 – Cambridge

  1. Richard Taylor Article author


    If you are going to make unfounded allegations that I need to check my facts, implying there is something wrong in what I have written, then it would be useful if you could clearly state what’s wrong and provide a link to a source of information with the correction.

    The Lib Dem manifesto was only launched today, after I wrote the article. It is undeniable that the Lib Dems have been wavering on their policy on tuition fees and diluting their pledge to scrap them.

    I have publicised the Lib Dem position, one of the videos I made and have published here shows Julian Huppert describe the Lib Dem policy of scrapping tuition fees over six years.

    The Lib Dem’s education page sets out their six year plan and I am happy to link to that:

    Julian Huppert’s website says:

    Instead of getting income from fees, universities would get the equivalent money from the Treasury.

    It was not clear to me if that is the sum total of Huppert and the Liberal Democrats’ idea of a “fairer alternative”, or if there was more to it. Today with the publication of their manifesto it appears the sum total of their plans is to raise taxes on those generating wealth, prosperity and jobs in this country to continue to fund the massively expanded university sector we’ve been left with by the Labour government.

    While I think it is right to fund university education from general taxation; I think there needs to be an emphasis on quality, and putting that money in where it is going to have greatest effect. That’s totally missing from the Lib Dem proposals.

    While I support fairer and flatter taxes, the way the Lib Dem manifesto launched today proposes to fund university education for those who’ve scraped a few C grade GCSES is by removing incentives for entrepreneurs building businesses which could help the UK trade its way out of recession. That detail has only come out today. They’ve specifically targeted capital gains tax and along with trusts and other tax avoidance measures used by the rich they’ve included “companies”.

    While we’ve got an initial proposal to keep the total tax-take about the same, one big omission in the Lib Dem manifesto is a clear statement on what they think the overall tax take should be. While it’s not in the national manifesto – In Cambridge many Liberal Democrats think they can spend my money better than I can and are in favour of a higher overall taxation, they see high taxes as a good thing.

  2. Jim Johnson

    1. He is called Zeichner – not Zeichnier
    2. It’s reasonable to question why a binman earning less than £20K – or indeed all taxpayers – should entirely fund a student to go to Cambridge University (50 per cent of whom are privately educated) so they can go and get a high-paid job in the city. Who exactly is benefiting more – the student, obviously, so why shouldn’t they pay something directly towards their education.

  3. John Ionides


    In terms of the binman, I think it is a question of how you want to encourage social mobility. The vast majority of income tax is paid by the wealthy, so there is a high degree of subsidy at this point. And of course, if you want to encourage the son of the dustman to go to Uni then there is an advantage in keeping the fees down.

    I appreciate it is not as simple as this, especially as the university system needs cash. In many ways, a graduate tax (coupled to a grant during the course itself) seems like a particularly good solution, in that it keeps the barrier to entry low. There would be a lag, however, which would need to be funded from elsewhere.

  4. Lucy Price

    In response to point 2 above, surely the privately educated student could argue that they haven’t received any funding for education until university, whereas a non privately educated student has had state funded education for approx 12 years. Which is more?

    Also having highly educated individuals benefits the population as a whole as they become our research scientists, politicians etc. people who shape and lead our country. The high spenders also create jobs in luxury industries.

    That said I can see it can be galling when earning less than £20K to be funding people who are considerably well off. I experienced several individuals who used their student loans to invest in high interest accounts and actually made money. This doesn’t seem right.

  5. Richard Taylor Article author

    I’ve corrected the spelling of Zeichner.

    As I’ve already said – I think university education should be funded out of general taxation; one thing we should be buying with that is greater meritocracy.

  6. Edward

    When access to university education is equal across all social classes, there will be a very good argument for funding it out of general taxation. Right now, however, that is very definitely not the case.

    There are problems with the fees system, especially where grants are involved, although they’ve improved somewhat in recent years. Nevertheless, my degree from Cambridge is going to vastly increase my earning potential throughout my life – even though it’s in an obscure branch of medieval history and isn’t obviously economically valuable outside academia.

    Because of those benefits, I think it’s right that I foot some of the cost for my education. I like the idea of a graduate tax, as it spreads the burden out and also allows differentiation between those who make huge amounts more because of their degree and those who do not, although I’m yet to be convinced that there’s an easy way to switch over from the present fees system to that without several years of insufficient money in the university system.

    Like it or not (and you can put me down in the not column) university is generally the preserve of the middle classes these days and it’s generally a net economic benefit. The state has limited resources and I think there are social groups that need subsidies a lot more than students.

  7. Richard Taylor Article author


    I agree with you that currently access to university education is not equal across society. I am particularly concerned about access to the professions.

    I think if we keep tuition fees they will pose a huge, insurmountable, barrier to fixing this problem and turning the country into a meritocracy.

    A university education isn’t guarantee of a good job and high earnings. I think this is particularly true for those from poorer backgrounds who don’t have the networks of connections, and the willingness to take advantage of them, to find themselves good jobs. Another problem is the astonishing number of younger people spending large amounts of time working for nothing – something far from everyone can afford to do. I think that universities themselves could do a lot more than they do to recognise those they educate are one of their key outputs and they’re not achieving their purpose if students don’t go on to appropriate jobs.

    I want to keep the state small; but I disagree with you that is inappropriate to spend national resources on students; I think that young people are a group in society who it makes sense to focus resources on.

  8. Richard Taylor Article author

    At 16:46 on Sunday the 15th of September 2013 Cambridge MP Julian Huppert addressed the Liberal Democrat Conference saying:

    Thank you very much conference and it’s great to be able to summate a Liberal Youth proposal.

    I’m afraid I don’t count as Liberal Youth anymore, but it’s wonderful.

    This is generally an excellent motion. I particularly approve of the motion on apprenticeships. At my own local regional college we have thousands of them and I have my very own apprentice who is doing fantastic work.

    We should never have followed Tony Blair’s ideas of trying to force half the population through higher education rather than vocational education, he made that mistake, we should move away from it.

    I am, but I’m here to talk about amendment one.

    I was a student when Labour introduced fees after they promised they would not introduce fees. And I remember all the protests and I remember all the marches and I remember how Labour with a massive majority with no coalitions to think about went on anyway. And I’m delighted that we’re able to make, to accept, the Liberal Youth proposal because after all if Liberal Youth say something, the FPC says so and Vince Cable says so then it must be right to vote for amendment one.

    Because it restates important principles we should all care about. Education must be free at the point of use. Access must be based on ability, not ability to pay. Those are core liberal values. It is right for us to highlight them. We should be evidence, we should review what’s happened. It’s right that we look at access, at participation, at quality and the cost. Though we make sure that when we do that in the next Parliament we are able to change on a full regime of things which might be found to work including an option to eliminate fees.

    My own view on what we should do is put more money into bursaries; because the problem isn’t the fees because students don’t have to pay them off while they’re studying, it’s affording to study in the first place. The motion talks about that but I think money should go into that as a priority.

    Conference, I remember the pain, that we’ve had with all of this. The pledge, the apology, but lets remember what the other parties would do. The tories wanted unlimited fees, even nine thousand pounds as cap is lower than they would look for. Labour well they introduced fees while having promised not to, they tripled them having promised not to, they set up the Browne review calling for unlimited fees and even, I don’t normally plug Peter Mandleson’s book but it’s worth having a look at the foreword of his book where he highlights that had Labour won the 2010 election they would have also massively increased fees. At least he was honest with that point.

    We should be honest as well.

    I believe passionately that I would like to see Higher Education to be free.

    But if we were to go into the next election saying that I don’t know how we’d pay for it. I don’t know what we would take the money from in order to achieve it and I really don’t think the public would believe us if we said it at the next election. I think they can believe what we are saying in amendment one. I think it’s the right thing to do, it allows us to have a review and get us to where we do want to be and highlights those important principles. Conference vote for amendment one, vote for all the amendments and vote for the motion as a whole.

    Thank you very much .

    The “amendment one” referred to was to add the following to the motion:

    • The principle that education should be free at the point of use.
    • Access to education should always be based on academic ability and never on an individual’s ability to afford it.
    • That the method of repayment should find a balance between the sum that graduates contribute and the burden under which they are placed in doing so
    • The current system of Higher Education funding is preferable to the funding system of the last Labour government.

    A commitment to a review within the next Parliament on the current system of higher education finance, which will examine its impact on access, participation and quality and consider both the pressure on the Public Sector Borrowing Requirement from unpaid loans and progress made on widening and increasing participation, with a view to reforming the system to address these challenges if possible or if necessary for fees to be eliminated in a feasible and cost-effective way.

    Background: agenda (includes motion and amendment text).

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