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Friday, May 20, 2005

Top-up fees on the agenda

The Conservative Party's minority debate on tuition fees next Tuesday has caused a storm, coming as it does, two days before the publication of the Rees Commission report on the subject. Professor Rees has allegedly written to AMs to express her dismay and disappointment at the timing of the discussion, stating that it "seems our evidence-based recommendations may not even be deemed worthy of consideration." I have to say that I am still waiting to receive this letter.

I understand her point and at one stage even advised the Conservative Education Spokesperson to choose another topic. I did so on the basis that the Assembly has already taken a position against variable top-up fees and that we should keep our powder dry for the report itself. Nevertheless, it is the right of the Conservatives to bring forward this subject for debate and to take advantage of the new arithmetic in the Assembly to drive home the point of principle.

Obviously, there will be further debates on the Rees Commission report itself and the evidence and the options within it will need to be considered in detail, especially on bursaries and part-timers. But that consideration will need to be tempered by the principle that education is an investment in our future and should be paid for by the state out of public funds. The punitive taxation which variable top-up fees represent will put off talented young people from going into higher education and deprive our Country of much-needed home-grown talent. They must be resisted at every opportunity.

N.B. Much has been made on the media this morning of a Higher Education Wales e-mail that states that there is a £250 million funding gap in Universities between England and Wales. Commentators have taken this figure as the amount which will be raised from top-up fees. That is not the case.

The funding gap that exists now is about £90 million. This comes about from the present Assembly funding HE policy. Higher Education Wales' argument is in fact that if top-up fees are introduced in England but not Wales AND Welsh HEIs are not compensated, then that chasm will grow in size to £250 million.

In fact top-up fees will raise about £40 million in year one, rising to about £160 million in year three. To use them to close the funding gap as well could require a Welsh top-up fee of £5,000. Is that the hidden agenda of Higher Education Institutions in Wales? If so then they will massively increase student debt and drive talented people away from Welsh Universities. There is no better illustration as to why variable top-up fees are wrong.

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My view of this is, that the majority of the education budget should be spent on the early years, Primary and secondary education, because those three stages of education are compulsory for every single child, therefore, those sectors should receive the majority of the funding. Higher Education is largely funded by the tax payer, but I think that students who gain from going through university should expect to contribute something back.

Why should a hard working family, with children, pay more tax to send me to University?

Do you agree with the re-introduction of grants for students from less well off backgrounds?

Why shouldn’t I, when earning £15,000+ a year, pay for my own education? I see my university education as an investment, that’s why I have no qualms about paying my own way through.

Surely its better that students pay back tuition fees when they are in work, earning a living, and not paying fees whilst in University as we do now? The new system in England takes away the requirement for parents to pay upfront fees, is that a bad thing?

Someone on an average wage of £16,000 a year will pay back £7.50 a month; someone earning £20,000 a year will pay back £37.50 a month – will that “increase financial pressure” on people?

What does put financial pressure on people (especially parents), is having to pay fees during your time in university, this will no longer be the case. Further to that, any debt left over after 25 years will be wiped off.

The people who will “drive talented people away from Welsh Universities” are people like you who thrive on scaremongering. The new system does not “massively increase student debt” at all– because you it pay back on the basis of what you earn, through the tax system, on a sliding scale.

The Lib Dems live in a fantasy world where money grows on trees, Plaid Cymru live in a fantasy world where Wales would be independent, and still end up paying for all the basic services and more; the Tories would like to take us back to a world where only the rich minority could go to University, at the expense of everyone else.

We no longer live in the era where 7-8% of 18-29 year olds go into HE, and the state could afford to give them grants – because the number of students in HE were so small, we live in an era where approx 42% of 18-29 year olds go to University, and we want that to increase – not so that we force 50% into HE, but so that the opportunity is there for as many people who want to gain a university education, can do so.

I don’t want hard working families to pay more tax to allow me or anyone else to go to University, I’m not a charity case, students should pay their way through education, after they graduate, when they can afford it.

“Education is an investment in our future and should be paid for by the state out of public funds” Yes – and the vast majority of HE funding will still come from public funds – but the people who should pay that little bit extra into the public funds to pay for the investment should be the people who have gained from that investment, the students.
 
I thought you did very well to copy all that out from the Labour Party crib sheet Martyn. Loved the use of all the Focus group buzzwords. :-)

I do not think it is right that a graduate should effectively pay a marginal rate of tax of 42% on graduation, which is what Labour's proposals mean.

If Graduates do earn more then they will pay more tax. That is right and proper and that is how the system balances itself out. I do not mind paying more tax to fund higher education because it ultimately will benefit the Country and increase prosperity. This "greater good" has been lost in your answer.

The fact is that talented youngsters are already being put off from going into Higher Education. I am not scaremongering, I am championing their cause. It is ironic that a Cabinet who all benefited from free Higher Education are now penalising those who seek to follow in their footsteps.
 
Believe it or not, Peter, I wrote that all by myself! All my own thoughts, and is exactly what I said in my speech on this issue at the Welsh Labour party conference back in March.

With all due respect, you are fortunate enough to be able to say that you are willing to pay more tax, a lot of people are not in the same position, and I wouldn’t dream of wanting to burden them with even more tax to pay for someone to do a degree in something ridiculous – such as Surf and beach management!

What I have thought about are “no fee” courses, such as Medicine, and disciplines that need extra recruitment, such as Maths. I think the government need to carry out a detailed study of what degree subjects us as a country need, and plan from there.

So basically what I’m suggesting is, that you have several tiers of degree subjects – if someone wants to do a degree in Surf and beach management, let them pay the full amount to do it, because, at the end of the day, them doing that particular degree is not going to have any positive benefits for the country as a whole. A doctor on the other hand, will provide 30+ years of extremely skilled and valuable service to the country, and maybe we should look at what we can do to reduce the costs of doing degrees that lead to working in “critical” sectors such as the NHS or teaching.

The reason why “talented youngsters are already being put off from going into Higher Education” is because the new system has not been explained properly to them. How many young people do you think know that the “debt” is wiped out after 25 years? How many of them do you think know how much in real terms they’d pay back each month?

The Labour party are committed to giving 50% of young people who leave school the opportunity to go to University/college – we’re not forcing anyone to go, we’re giving them the opportunity. My question is, under the Lib Dem proposals, what percentage would you give the opportunity to go to University?

Could we maybe look at top-up fees (I don’t personally like that term, I think it would make more sense if we called it Graduate tax) as being “ring fenced” tax that students pay when they are in employment, that goes back and enables the next generation of students to receive the same opportunities they had, and to enable the poorest in our society to go to University?

You say “It is ironic that a Cabinet who all benefited from free Higher Education are now penalising those who seek to follow in their footsteps” – not all members of the cabinet went to University, and when those who did go to University were at University, the percentage of their peers in HE was about 7-8%, and the state could afford to pay for them to go. If we want our economy to be knowledge based, we need more, and we should encourage more, to go to University or college.

But the biggest shock of the week, I’d say, is the letter that caused extreme embarrassment to me as a student at Swansea University that landed on the desks of AM’s this week. I’m sure you know what I’m talking about Peter, and if we learn anything from that letter, it’s that Swansea University need to start courses for some people on how to write letters!!!

Just to finish, I had a bit of a laugh at the Lib Dem reshuffle earlier on, it was merely re-arranging the chairs around a very small coffee table, are you disappointed that you were not promoted?
 
These views are very similar to those of David Davies AM/MP. I havent got a clue what letter you are referring to regarding Swansea University. Perhaps you can e-mail to jolt my memory.

As for the reshuffle, what was there to be promoted into? I am already Education Spokesperson and Chair of Education and Lifelong Learning. I have no personal ambitions in the Assembly other than to serve my constituents, my Country and my party. (I am being sincere on that by the way).
 
The letter from the SU.

I’m very much offended that you have compared me to a right wing Tory AM! I don’t see how my views on trying to open up the HE sector and attracting more young people to do higher and further education courses is anything similar to the Tory policies of cutting the numbers of students that are given the opportunity to go to university/college, and going back to the days where only the elite minority had the chance to gain a degree.

Well, they could have made you the “student’s champion” – in line with your new publicity stunt to attract Plaid Cymru voters by having a welsh language champion (and before anyone tries to say anything about the Welsh language, my first language is Welsh, I’ve received my primary and secondary education through the medium of welsh and am very proud of my Welsh roots, our culture and heritage)
 
I am sorry you were offended, I was just commenting that both you and David Davies have expressed similar views on this subject. I think that by being asked to concentrate on education I am effectively the Welsh Liberal Democrats' students' champion if such a title has any value, which I doubt. There are of course other aspects to Higher Education as well.
 
If that title has little value, why have a welsh language “champion”??

You constantly accuse the Labour party of publicity stunts, yet the only logical reason for you to have a “welsh language champion” is to woo Plaid Cymru supporters, in Ceredigion especially?

Did you enjoy the Mayor’s inauguration in Port Talbot yesterday Peter? I hope, as a regional AM, you’ll make an appearance at future Mayoral inaugurations.
 
I haven't got a clue why we have a Welsh Language champion. Not something I was involved in. As it happens I go to the Mayoral inauguration at Neath Port Talbot most years, certainly when my diary allows. Never see Peter Hain there though and only occasionally Brian Gibbons.
 
Oh dear, party communication lines are obviously not in proper working order!

Brian Gibbons was at the British-Irish council yesterday; don’t know where Peter Hain was. But judging that both are cabinet ministers, I’d imagine ministerial diary commitments would make it impossible at times to be able to attend.
 
Martyn, I wrote that letter in line with SUSU policy. If you have a problem with it, why not come and see me or any other member of the Sabb team? I'm in monday come and have a chat, I'll explain why I wrote it.
Many Thanks,
Dan Hilton
 
I haven’t got a problem with you writing letters, it’s just a shame it took you so long to write them, as you did say back on FEBRUARY 17th (in your blog) that the writing of letters to AM’s was “ongoing”. But it would however, be advisable that you re-read your letters and use a spell checker before you send them out, because with all due respect, it looked as if a 10 year old had written the letter, and not a Student Union president with a degree!

One example being: “We understand that the pressures upon the finances of the Welsh Assembly, how much must be diverted into economic regeneration and the health service.”

Believe it or not Dan, I’m not having a go at you just for the sake of it – it was just embarrassing to see such a sub-standard letter being sent by the SU of which I’m a member to elected representatives.

As I don’t live in Swansea, I’ll only be in to do my exams, which, incidentally, are not being held on campus (all three in the Patti pavilion) – so I don’t plan on being on campus again until September.
 
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