It has been over a year since the unveiling of the coalition government’s controversial new higher education policy, yet angry students and outraged protesters continue to deplore the plans to raise tuition fees to a maximum £9000 next year. In a clear attempt to recapture the hearts and minds of the liberal, disillusioned youngsters who voted for a Lib Dem pledge to scrap tuition fees and found themselves rewarded with £70,000 of graduate debt, Willetts has given a new interview to the Guardian. In it, he attempts to defend and soften the reputation of the new universities policy. But whilst the best of his arguments go some way towards supporting the sense of the government’s plans in a guilt-evading, rock/hard place sort of way, the worst portray an out of touch and uninformed minister making vague predictions and blasé assumptions about the real situations of the young people whose lives his decisions will affect.
Willetts begins by attempting to defend the government miscalculations that estimated the average tuition fees would be set at £7500. The vast majority of universities chose to set fees at the maximum rate of £9000, claiming they would not be able to function on a lower income. This mistake has been heavily criticised, since it has forced the government to attempt to recoup some of the extra money through last-minute policy changes, forcing many universities to reconsider their fees levels and throwing applicants into chaos.
Willetts defends the mistake by suggesting that it has been inaccurately reported by the media – they, he claims, have implied that the government calculations were based on an estimate of fees, when in fact the estimate they made was of the average loan a student would take out. Many students, he argues, may have earned, say, £2000 during the summer before university, leading to a lower loan being taken out.
Yet this figure is as arbitrary as the others! Plucked out of the air, it is utterly out of the range of most students scratching around for minimum wage bar work in our struggling economy (not to mention the fact that most students are spending their last pre-university summer ‘finding themselves’ in Thailand anyway).
With thousands of recent graduates of our top universities desperately struggling to find any form of employment at all, the smugness of the suggestion that our sixth form graduates are somehow spinning £2000 out of their summer holiday couldn’t provide more proof of disconnection from the harsh financial reality today’s students face.
“A loan is not a debt…”
Willetts then goes on to flounder in semantics, blindly refusing to accept that poorer applicants will be deterred by the enormous sums of debt they will accrue simply by rejecting the words we use to describe it; “the language of debt”. Purely on the basis that this enormous debt will be paid off over a whole lifetime, and places the burden on the graduate in middle age, rather than when he is starting out, Willetts argues that nobody should be put off applying to university by the figures. “It’s not like some debt around their necks”, he laughs, “It’s much better to think of it as a flow of payments over a lifetime.” But when one considers the implications of this enormous financial burden, stretching on so far into ones future that it is estimated many graduates will never succeed in paying it off completely, it is hard to see the funny side of Willetts’s argument. Sure, he reminds us young people will have less to pay at the beginning when they are starting out, but that’s rather small consolation when the payoff will be enormous interest payments over the decades, a failure ever to be free of debt, and an inability to achieve the kind of credit rating middle aged graduates will need to ever grapple their way onto the most humble rung of the housing ladder.