(Original article at London Evening Standard.)
Today, the protesters will be out again on the streets of London, marching against this Coalition’s plans for higher education.
Banners will be waved, slogans chanted, placards hoisted.
Of course these people have a right to protest.
Who are all you people? Get off my lawn!
But I also believe they have a responsibility to know the full facts about what they’re objecting to — and judging by the fury that’s been unleashed, there are a lot of misconceptions flying around.
At least that’s what Andy tells me.
Unlike our predecessors we won’t patronise the public by pretending there’s a bottomless pit of money we can dig into. There isn’t, and that means difficult choices need to be made.
Which is why we’re stealing from the future in as many ways as we can, and even some we can’t. Aren’t we clever? And brave! And so modest!
The public subsidy for higher education is massive — this year the Government will spend around £5 billion on teaching costs in English higher education alone — and in the context of spending restraint it cannot be exempted from cuts.
I impress you with arguing points I already know you disagree with using the obvious and uncontroversial.
A lot has been said in recent weeks about what is in the interests of students, but this government is also responsible for the interests of taxpayers — and at a time of real financial hardship, a time when we have no choice but to make cuts across public spending, I don’t believe it is right that we ask those on low incomes to pay taxes to prop up an unaffordable university funding system that they are not benefiting from directly.
I can’t see indirect benefits, therefore they are irrelevant. Tax avoidance is irrelevant too — if George does it, surely there can’t be anything wrong with it.
The second thing protesters should know is that these reforms are vital to maintaining a world-class higher education system in this country.
The free market can’t produce a world-class education system. Everyone knows that. But now we have one, the invisible hand will make everything better and cheaper.
A lot of the banners waved in Whitehall proclaim the importance of education, both to our economy and as an end in itself. I’m in whole-hearted agreement with them — but it serves no one to have underfunded universities with fraying resources and fading reputations. It damages our economy and it damages the prospects of students.
Okay, I admit, some indirect benefits are relevant. But anyway, I’m pretty sure a dozen or so rich universities and no poor ones should be enough to educate millions of young people. They’re the future, don’t you know.
These reforms are going to drive up the quality of higher education, because when more funding flows directly from the student rather than from government, universities will be pressured to up their game in order to attract more students — improving teaching quality, offering real value for money and offering better student support.
For my next trick, I will pull £5 billion out of this hat. Rumours of a secret tunnel to the Treasury under the table are completely unfounded. The money really will come from the students of the future!
These plans will mean that, like anyone else going to university, they get the burden of upfront costs taken off their shoulders — and that way no one will be locked out of the opportunity university brings.
My daddy paid for my coke habit while I was at Brasenose. Why can’t yours?
So this is a solution that is fair on the taxpayer in a time of financial anxiety. It’s fair on the student, who will get better teaching.
Speaking of coke, I am high as a kite.
Our Coalition partners have had a lot of stick for supporting this policy but their opponents should understand this: responsible politics is not about peddling fantasy policies without looking at the price tag and pleasing any crowd you’re playing to.
We didn’t have a fully costed manifesto, but by golly we’re glad they did, because now we can blame them for this mess. Even though they tore it up as soon as we told them to.