By Leon Spence
I’m going to let you in to a secret about the one thing that columnists love more than anything else. We love the letters page.
How wonderful is it that something we write, our stream of consciousness, can provoke a reader to concur with our thoughts? It’s even better when someone disagrees with us; the visceral emotion which comes from some of the ‘anti’ letters we receive is great.
A columnist who is the subject of angry letters has absolutely done their job. We never claim to be any more right than the next person but we do want to get you thinking and those letters to the editor are proof that we have done just that.
Yes, being a contributor rather than simply a reader, the letters page is always my first stop when I open my weekly Catholic Universe. You can guarantee I will have read it today long before I check whether I like the layout of this column; which by the way is usually excellent.
But I have a problem. I just don’t seem to get as many letters as your other esteemed columnists. Blimey, I never even used to get a look in when Chris Whitehouse was going with a full head of steam. Every week it would be ‘Dear Sir, I want to protest at your columnist Mr Whitehouse…’ and I would never get a mention.
Now we columnists are sensitive souls and every week it would get me thinking; maybe I need to write better?
And while that is absolutely true, I do need to write better, I also learnt that the letters which you receive are also determined by the approaches that you take. I like to think that in most respects I am fairly moderate; I look at every viewpoint and generally to come up with an opinion which seeks complement all of them.
I find moderation tends to be a good motto for life, not just writing. The problem is that when you tend to be, shall we say, middle of the road, you don’t provoke vitriol quite as much, unless of course you are writing about Jeremy Corbyn, in which case ‘light the blue touch paper and then stand back’.
When you are moderate, though, it doesn’t mean that you don’t care about issues. Moderates often care very deeply and are just as principled as those on the extreme. It just means that we believe compromise and that awful word, triangulation, is usually the best recipe for any problem.
But there is an issue that has been at the forefront of our political agenda where I have a huge problem with moderation. It is an issue which has been raised by the aforementioned Mr Corbyn and I believe he is not only hugely wrong, I can guarantee you that being a shibboleth of the new Labour Party’s identity, I will have letters filling the editor’s post bag questioning my decency for weeks.
I am talking about university tuition fees and Mr Corbyn’s proposals to get rid of them. I have never heard of such a stupid, inequitable policy in my lifetime. Let’s look at some facts.
When Tony Blair’s New Labour Government came to power in 1997, higher education in this country was both relatively poorly funded but, hugely importantly, also tended to be the preserve of the upper and middle classes. Working class kids, given the barriers built into the system, didn’t tend to end up going to university. It is as simple as that.
The New Labour Government wanted to ensure that more young people had the chance to access higher education and making that possible not only meant increasing capacity, it meant increasing funding to places of higher learning too; and so, to meet those aims, the idea of students paying towards the cost of their learning was introduced.
Tuition fees for higher education, initially limited to £1,000 per year, were introduced in 1998 and no matter what Mr Corbyn would have you believe, the system has been a great success.
University capacity did increase. The proportion of young people from working class and underprivileged backgrounds studying for degrees has gone up virtually every year since the introduction of fees.
Two weeks ago Jeremy Corbyn stood at a political rally and told his audience that “Fewer working class young people are applying to university. Let’s end the debt burden and scrap tuition fees!”
I will be generous and suggest that Mr Corbyn was misinformed – I am sure he wouldn’t simply lie, would he? Because according to UCAS, the university admissions body, young people from the poorest areas are more likely than ever to apply for university and application rates from the poorest groups continues to rise year on year.
One of the reasons for the increase in applications for higher education is because tuition fees and the student loan system that supports them are fair. There, I have said it.
We hear so many stories of students leaving university with debts of £50,000 that we fail to consider whether there is fairness in the system; and overwhelmingly, there is.
When you leave university these days you may well have a debt the size of a small mortgage – well, at least a mortgage when we may have bought our first homes – but unlike a mortgage you are not expected to start paying your debt straight away. In fact you do not pay a penny of that debt off until you are earning £21,000 a year; and above that level you pay nine per cent of earnings.
As the wonderful Martin Lewis of moneysavingexpert.com recently outlined, if you earn £22,000 a year you will pay £90 per year towards your student loans; if you earn £31,000 you will pay £900 and if you earn vastly more, then you will pay vastly more until your debt is paid.
It is what we might call a progressive system of repayment.
But, I hear you cry, what happens to your debt if all you ever pay is £90 a year? Do you die with it? And once again the system helps those who following graduation have been on lower incomes for the entirety of their career. All student loans are written off after 30 years.
Simply put, although you may have had a notional debt of £50,000, the contribution a graduate had made to their education over the course of a 30-year career isn’t, unless you have been lucky enough to be a top earner, that figure but rather an amount based on your ability to pay.
Once again students fees aren’t, as Mr Corbyn might have you believe, evil. They are fair and equitable and in actual fact based upon how much you can reasonably afford.
But here is the absolute killer. Unlike secondary or even for that matter further education, no-one, but no-one is obligated to go to university; but in getting rid of tuition fees Mr Corbyn and his ilk want everyone who chose not to go to contribute towards the tuition and potential higher earnings of those who chose to apply.
We know that Labour aspired at the last election to not only withdraw tuition fees going forward but to cancel historic debt. We know that such a promise was going to cost into the hundreds of billions of pounds. We know that promise was made to buy the votes of young people.
And despite the suggestion that only business and the top five per cent of earners would pay more we know, because former Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls told us so, that we would all be paying more tax to pay for Jeremy Corbyn’s cynical ploys.
The truth is that there may well be an argument that some university courses should have fees paid for by the Government and, by definition, the taxpayer; particularly courses such as medicine or teacher training, where society deems there to be a ‘greater good’.
But my question has to be why should those who chose not to go to university or didn’t have the grades or now work hard in minimum wage jobs, be expected to pay for the tuition fees of barristers or software designers or architects who enter into often lucrative practices or highly paid jobs?
That is a gross inequity which hurts working class people far more than a progressive repayment system ever has. No, in promising to get rid of tuition fees Jeremy Corbyn and Labour were, and continue to do so, seeking easy votes in return for damaging promises. Tuition fees, albeit potentially a revised model, are the way forward in delivering fairness for all of us and not just graduates.
And if that doesn’t get letters in this week, nothing will.
Leon is a councillor, writer and charity trustee. You can follow him on Twitter @cllrleonspence
Picture: Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn with nursing students at the University of Worcester Nursing School in Worcester. Photo: Ben Birchall/PA Wire/PA Images.