Abolish tuition fees?

When I wrote back in April about the iniquity of the hike in repayments rates on student fee debt to 6.1% hardly anyone noticed https://johnohowson.wordpress.com/2017/04/12/debt-hike-for-teachers/ That’s the price you pay for being ahead of the game. Then came Labour’s abolish fees pledge during the general election and there is now a growing groundswell on the issue, further fuelled by the fall in applicant numbers reported by UCAS this week.

So far, few have tried to put the debate in even the wider education funding agenda, let along government funding policy as a whole. As I argued in my earlier piece, cutting student fees might mean losing or postponing some other project either in education or society more widely unless the funds can be generated from an increase in taxation somewhere else. There might also be the unintended, or I assume unintended, consequence of reducing further social mobility if the abolition of fees and their replacement with direct payment for university places by the government led to a cap on places. Those that could afford to pay for extra tuition might scoop the bulk of available places, leaving others less well-off to claim only any reserved places under government mandated schemes or unfashionable subjects in unpopular universities.

Earlier in the century there were schemes to help young people save for expenses like tuition fees so that they would not be the burden they now are seen to be. I am not sure what happened to them? It is interesting that the insurance market also never saw saving for tuition fees as a necessary product, presumably because parents with young children were seen as not having the level of disposable income to fund such schemes in advance. As I said in April, at the present time it would be more cost effective for families to increase their mortgages than to incur student debt in terms of current repayment levels.

The risk is that in the present political climate judgements will be made on votes to be won rather than sound economic or social policy. But, then fees were increased to £9,000 probably without much thought for either issue and certainly no rationale as to why a classroom subject would cost that sum to deliver. Anyway, the concern must be that a Conservative strategist sees abolishing fees as spiking Labour’s guns with young voters and so worth doing ahead of sorting out the mess with funding social care or even the NHS.

Although there are many worthy articles written about the rationality of government financing, in the end it comes down to plain old horse trading and what works politically. With the number of eighteen year olds set to fall, part-time students numbers already having been decimated and no EU students to pay for, the government could well explore a deal with universities of fees paid for home students, but higher full-cost fees for overseas and non-government funded students. The government could also rebalance the subject offering so as to demonstrate to Conservative voters that they have wiped out subject that shouldn’t be degrees and moved them into the new apprenticeship sector. That might play well with those that think there are too many students wasting three years at university. So, whether fees survive looks increasingly like a political decision based on electoral strategy and the date of the next general election.

 

Who would have thought it?

Education has suffered some high profile losses in the general election. Not only has Neil Carmichael, the chair of the Education Select Committee in the last parliament lost his  Gloucestershire seat, but Flick Drummond, another Tory MP with an interest in education, also lost her Portsmouth South seat to a surprise Labour victory. Edward Timpson, the Tory MP with a strong interest in the Children’s Services part of the DfE brief also lost his Cheshire seat to a Labour education activist.

Sarah Olney, given the education brief for the Lib Dems after John Pugh retired from parliament, also narrowly lost the Richmond Park seat she had so recently won in the by-election.  Sir Ed Davey once held the education brief for the Lib Dems, but he may be earmarked for another role this time around. Layla Moran, the new Oxford & Abingdon MP might be a possible Lib Dem spokesperson, but she has little or no experience of the State school system except in relation to the examination system.

Now that the Conservatives have returned as the largest Party at Westminster, to be once again called Conservatives and Unionists after their success in Scotland and with the need to rely upon the Northern Irish DUP for a working majority at Westminster, where does that leave the manifesto? Much, I suspect, will depend upon the make-up of the ministerial team and their preferences and support for different policies.

I have already written about how TeachVac www.teachvac.co.uk can cheaply and quickly fulfil the idea of a national vacancy portal and almost certainly at a much lower cost than anyone else can offer. That would be a quick win on savings to offset possible issues of further pay restraint. I suspect that industrial action over pay won’t be far off if the government sticks to the one per cent limit on pay rises.

Although, I suspect, the DUP may favour selective schools, I find it difficult to see the spread of new selective schools really taking hold in such a finely balanced parliament. After all, some Tories were not greatly in favour of axing successful comprehensive schools in their constituencies and can be expected to remain sceptical of the idea that has been so strongly associated with the Prime Minister.

Even more urgent, and top of the new Secretary of State’s agenda, may be sorting out the effect of the -U- turn on funding announced during the election campaign. Is the National Funding Formula dead in the water or will money be found to compensate the losers and still allow the formula to go ahead as planned? This will require some fast footwork between the DfE and The Treasury and it might be that the present arrangements will continue for another year, much to the displeasure of the F40 Group.

Personally, I would like to see the role of the local authority strengthened and a cap on the pay of Chief Executives and other senior staff in MATs in line with the pay of local government officers carrying out similar functions. But, that might be a bit too radical.

We are in a new era, whether it last a full five year parliamentary term looks very doubtful at present, but the Conservative won’t be keen to offer Labour a second chance anytime soon, unless they are forced to by circumstances.

 

Funding formula to go?

There are reports that the National Funding formula is to be abandoned. I received this from the Lib Dem press office just a few moments ago.

The Liberal Democrats have responded to reports that the Conservatives are to bow to massive backbench pressure and abandon their proposed shake-up of school funding.
Liberal Democrat Education spokesperson John Pugh said:
Finally, the Conservatives have been forced to re-think their deeply flawed funding formula, which would see savage cuts to schools in most areas of the country. Their proposals were utterly cynical, taking from some areas to give to others, rather than committing to give all schools the additional funding they need.”

I am surprised to hear this even being discussed during purdah as it amounts to a change of policy already under consultation.

Locally, if it proves to be true and not just electioneering, I am both glad for the rural primary schools, 100 of them in Oxfordshire, where the cash for the school was going to be cut (see earlier posts), but sad that Oxfordshire and the other F40 authorities will have to wait longer for a fairer distribution of funds to schools.

However, I am not surprised at the possibility of an announcement. Trying to reform school funding in the middle of the largest increase in pupil numbers in almost half a century was always going to lead to electoral disaster. One wonders why the Tories backbenchers waited until the day before the local elections to put on the pressure as any announcement has surely come too late to influence the voters in the shire counties voting tomorrow.

Then there is the issue of where the Conservatives now stand on funding schools? Unless they can come up with something better than just a U-turn on their formula they will still be leaving school looking at a funding shortfall over the life of the next parliament. Reciting the mantra of strong leadership on school funding just looks silly in the circumstances.

Finally, it doesn’t look like good government to change your mind in their way. There will certainly need to be some clarification of the government’s position. And, what next, a change of mind over selective schools?

 

Back to Banbury

So, there’s to be a general election on 8th June. Last time, in 2015, I stood for the Lib Dems in Banbury, winning 6% of the vote and just saving the deposit. I wait to see whether I will be invited to stand there again in June. Coming off the back of a real fight in my county division for this May’s county council elections, another four weeks of campaigning isn’t what I expected.

Still, time to start thinking of some new slogans to go alongside the ‘If you voted remain in 2016 then vote Lib Dem in 2017.’

I think education will play a bigger part in the sub-text of this general election than in 2015, when it barely rated a mention.

Here are two possible slogans for starters

If you want your child to attend;

A secondary modern school; Vote Conservative

A good comprehensive: Vote Liberal Democrat

Another might be

If you think children;

Can be taught by unqualified teachers: Vote Conservative

Need professionally trained teachers: Vote Liberal Democrat

Do let me know of any other such slogans that you can suggest for the campaign.

 

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