Party Conference 2012: fringe events report

25 Oct 2012

Graduate tax, moratorium on student numbers, concerns about falls in part-time students – range of debates at million+ and NUS party conference fringe events

million+ and the NUS held three successful fringe meetings at the Liberal Democrat, Labour and Conservative party conferences. Attracting high profile speakers, including the leading spokespeople on higher education for the main parties, the meetings raised key issues including part-time students, the impact of the current fees regime and student number controls, a graduate tax and the UK’s international standing in higher education.

Speaking at the Lib Dem fringe, Never Too Late To Learn: Mature students and higher education, Vince Cable MP, the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills said he “regretted” not marketing the current tuition fees repayment model effectively as a graduate tax. This claim was roundly dismissed by the President of the NUS, Liam Burns, who pointed out that degrees now come with a sticker price that bears no resemblance to the payment you make at the end. At the same event, Lib Dem peer, Baroness Sal Brinton said that if the recession had a disproportionate impact on adult learners then the reforms introduced by the Coalition Government must be reassessed.

Labour MP, Paul Blomfield, speaking at the fringe meeting at the Labour conference Head and Heart? How a new higher education funding policy is a matter of fiscal credibility, called for a graduate tax. He based his case on three principles. Firstly, that those who benefit from higher education should make a contribution towards its costs, and this included individuals, but also employers and the state. Secondly, that a “burden of debt” should be removed from students as this was a disincentive to attend university and thirdly, that there must not be market in fees between universities.

Also, talking at the Labour fringe event, Shadow Higher Education Minister, Shabana Mahmood MP, said all options were on the table, though current policy for now would be to reduce the fee threshold to £6,000 and fund the reduction by reversing the Coalition Government’s corporation tax cut for banks and asking the highest earning graduates (top 10%) to make a larger contribution. She stated that the proposals were costed using figures from the House of Commons Library and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.

David Willetts, Minister for Universities and Science, spoke at the Conservative fringe Spiralling debt or sound investment? How higher education can tackle the deficit and defended the current system for forging a direct connection between the student and university. He also said that a graduate tax would be subject to the annual budget and far more variable that the current fixed system.

Professor Patrick McGhee, Vice-Chancellor of the University of East London, and chair of million+, who spoke at all three meetings, called on Willetts to agree a moratorium in the de-regulation of the student numbers market. He said the AAB policy has caused instability in the system and should be paused until longer term demand is better understood.

Both Willetts and Cable expressed disappointment that the numbers of part-time and mature students were falling, and asked for ideas to improve participation, but concerns were expressed in the audience about the ‘wait and see’ approach. Cable laid out the Government’s policy that even though loans were being introduced for people over 24 to undertake courses which would give them entry to university (such as A levels or BTECs) these loans would be written off on completion of a degree. Liam Burns said it was not acceptable for such courses to come with a price, but that they also made little economic sense as the repayment predictions were so low.

The guest speakers commended million+ for its on-going work in promoting participation and raising issues affecting the one-third of undergraduates who are mature students. 

Read coverage of our events in the Times Higher Education:

'Cable laments 'mistakes' over fees presentation' report of Liberal Democrat event, 24 September, http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?sectioncode=26&storycode=421238

'Blomfield backs calls for a graduate tax' report of Labour event, 2 October, http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?sectioncode=26&storycode=421349

'Wake up to the new world, declares Willetts' report of Conservative event, 11 October, http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?sectioncode=26&storycode=421448