There are alternatives to higher tuition fees (1 of 2)

December 16, 2010

The hike in tuition fees up to a ceiling of £9,000 has rightly been challenged by young people, union leaders, academics, the heads of secondary schools and colleges, parents and a miscellany of others who see that this unfair burden must not be placed on the shoulders of students alone ("Fees protesters hope as MPs vote", 9 December). Vice-chancellors, on the whole, have kept quiet.

Yet at the turn of the year when the Labour government intimated that the universities would have to take their share of its projected cuts, there was uproar; vice-chancellors were accused of hyperbole as their exaggerated claims of the damage to be wrought on the sector were published in the quality press.

So do they think it is OK for students to pay exorbitant tuition fees? Certainly it is the easiest option for them in terms of financial planning: the block grant from the Higher Education Funding Council for England plus a predictable sum payable by the student body. But the downside will be a reduction in student numbers and the possible closure of some institutions.

At the beginning of the year, Alistair Darling, the former Chancellor of the Exchequer, floated the idea of an increase in National Insurance so that spending on health, policing and education could be ring-fenced. This remains worthy of consideration by Labour as an alternative - or indeed in addition - to a graduate tax.

Simply criticising the Liberal Democrats for letting young people down and the Conservatives for swinging the axe too hard and too fast is not enough. Rather, it is clear that there is an alternative to the coalition's plans, one that should be reflected upon and used to challenge government thinking.

Elizabeth Chell, Kingston University.

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