In defence of the Social Liberal Forum

After reading Tim Oliver’s blog post titled ‘On fighting for what you believe in and leaving things behind’ I felt my fingers twitching and my teeth starting to grind. Whilst I respect a lot of points Tim has made in the post, I felt it came across as yet another attempt to generalise the organisation which I serve as Membership Development officer based upon a couple of negative experiences over social media. I will try to tackle as many of the points raised whilst also giving “my side” to the story based upon my experiences as a member on the “left” of the party. 

Firstly, it feels a lot of these negative experiences are based on interactions on social media and sites like Lib Dem Voice. I have never regarded the likes of Facebook and Twitter as a good way to truly gauge the character of individuals, nor as a means to understand the work of an organisation like SLF. If I was to take my experience as a Liberal Democrat purely based on interactions over social media then I would have left a long time ago. It is rare that a day goes by where myself, or others with similar views, aren’t pounced upon or patronised. I’ve been called stupid over my stance on tuition fees, called c*nt on at least two occasions and had numerous accusations of entryism thrown at me for the most ridiculous of reasons (daring to start a group for Young Social Liberals being one…). So, although this isn’t meant to reassure Tim, I would like to remind him that feeling sidelined and pushed out based on the hostility of others is certainly not the property of a few on his side of the party.

On the point of Browne’s book (which I haven’t read, I will get round to it!) and the comparison made to a quote, yes a quote, given to the BBC in the run up to the election…well, that should speak for itself. To equate and compare an entire book written by a former Lib Dem government minister to a single quote given to the BBC (after it was requested) seems to me a little desperate. I said this at the time when others made such criticisms and I’m surprised this is still seen as any kind of issue. We didn’t see endless Lib Dem Voice articles and blog posts on the contentious fallout from the quote (yes, A SINGLE QUOTE!) like we did with Browne’s book so maybe we can put that little comparison to rest.

Now what often alarms me about critics of SLF is their hostility towards its members organising and collectively trying to achieve their shared goals. We’re a democratic party. Our members have a direct say in the policy making process. Liberal Reform do similar. They put together their own amendments, host their own fringe events and send out conference briefings. And quite right that they do too! But it seems Tim and others seem particularly concerned at a future in the party where the views of those in SLF become more prevalent, despite the fact that members have every right to try and influence the direction of the party and its policies. Tim is concerned about the future of the party (because the SLF may make more ground?) which may be something to push him out of the party but I can’t help but feel little sympathy for this. Despite this party being led by an individual I do not support, despite us being complicit in a government that has pursued policy that makes me red with rage and despite often feeling disillusioned with our conferences I have still stood by the party. I intend to stand by it in good times and in bad because I fundamentally believe that Britain needs a party flying the flag for liberalism and I want to be part of the movement that seeks to entrench it in British politics. 

So what happens when maybe we do end up with a left-leaning leader? Or if maybe we did one day form a coalition with Labour? Am I supposed to then feel guilty because it makes others in the party uncomfortable? I’m sorry, but I simply refuse. I have supported the concept a Tory-Lib Dem coalition from the very beginning and have endlessly given Nick and the party the benefit of the doubt on so much. I have stood by, often proudly and sometimes uncomfortably, so I shall reserve no sympathy for those wishing to abandon ship because there is a risk things may not be politically easy for them. Tim, in his last paragraph, says he has a lot to fight for still. I just hope he chooses to do it in the party. We all share far more common goals than we will all ever be seen to admit which is a shame.

The harshest of accusations thrown towards SLF in Tim’s post comes at the fifth paragraph:

‘From what I can see, the SLF’s vision of the party is of a Labour-lite; a timid, status-quo protecting centre-left beige mass, that covers up its addiction to Westminster legislation and more government agencies as the cure for all ills by attachment to a cluster of headline reforms that seek to demonstrate some tepid liberalism remains somewhere in that great blancmange of vapidity.’

 

Now before I take this on directly, I want to point out something that did make me laugh. Tim bemoans the fact that people like him have often had to put up with being called ‘Tories’. Now, whilst I think this actually is petty and counterproductive to holding proper, informed political discussions it doesn’t scream of hypocrisy when Tim himself denounces SLF vision of the party as being ‘Labour-lite’ and lists reasons as to why this is so. Seemingly it is ok for Tim to throw such unfounded accusations, but alarmingly unfair for him to have such things thrown at him. 

Now the Labour-lite comparison is a curious one. Had Tim have given some direct comparisons on the views of SLF and drawn lines to what Labour has said on similar issues then it would have at least come across as a credible point. However, Tim made no such attempt. He instead bogged down his point in pomp and flowery words that actually mean very little unless given the context of some, y’know, facts or actual policy. On our vision I would actually like to enlighten people on what we and our members actually do think. We have recently launched a brilliant website which gives people the chance to launch their own policy ideas, which people can then vote up or down based on whether they agree or not. Now, you’ll find some ideas are quite similar to many things Labour have been saying, but equally there are a number of distinctly liberal ideas shared on the website (not least the longstanding commitment to a Land Value Tax). 

I feel it is a shame that I have had to respond to this post. But I’ve had enough of accusation after accusation being thrown at the Social Liberal Forum. They have given me a home in the party that makes me comfortable and have helped empower me and others to organise for the issues we are passionate about. It is also a shame that this has needed to be said at all, because the people in SLF are really rather wonderful. I would say to Tim that he should actually come to our events and engage with us. It may be the last thing he wants to be told, but have you ever approached us in such a way? Because the people I have met are intelligent, caring people who are proud of their liberalism and proud of the fact that, yes, they may be just that little bit more radical than the average member. But you need to realise that for many, the Liberal Democrats, have always been the radicals in British politics. Years of opposition to nuclear weapons, to tuition fees, to opposing the war on Iraq, to fighting for a compassionate welfare state, an NHS in the publics hands and much more. So when you may wince at lefties like me preaching what you may feel are the same cliched arguments, just take a second to consider the context of why we’re saying this and the history of our party. For a lot of people, particularly our older members, the direction the party has been dragged in over a relatively short period of time has been difficult for them to accept. So if a group like SLF can help make that transition a little bit easier for them, and if it helps make them feel like they have a voice again then whats to hate?

I hope that people, in future, can start to build bridges and conduct internal debates with a little bit more respect. And I say this to everyone. Politics is emotive and it can be divisive, but this is just testament to its importance. So lets all make an effort to help change it for the better and make it just that little bit more accessible for the likes of myself and for the likes of Tim.

I’ve “got the facts” and I still demand we scrap fees!

“Get the Facts: Student Finance” is a “factsheet” that has recently popped up on the Liberal Democrat website. Upon seeing it I was incredibly angry. I understand why my party is trying it’s best to confront and justify our position, but the way in which it does so infuriates me. “Factsheets” like this only ever seem to skim the surface of the issues at hand. They tailor the arguments and cherry pick the facts to justify our own political agenda with little ambition to actually have a proper and upfront debate on the impact of the policy at hand.

It is obvious and clear that you can win the argument when you are the ones framing the context of the debate.  I’m not naive, I know this is how modern politics works. However, the context in which the discussion only ever seems to occur is one that makes the assumption that there is only one way to fund higher education. In this case the assumption is that it has to be done off the back of saddling students with various levels of debt. In this case the debate seems to conclude that we either pursue lower debt with a less progressive repayment system, or through the new system we have introduced with the Tories where the emphasis is on higher debt but repaid through a more “progressive” system.

Let us be clear, this choice is between one level of student debt or another. This is not a “choice” but a false dichotomy. We know very well there are other ways to fund education that does not involve the failed experiment of fees and debt.

Now, unlike Nick Clegg, I am not sorry for believing that scrapping tuition fees was the most progressive proposal to offer to the electorate. It is the only way to truly break down the barriers of access and open up education to every person in the country.

But before I move onto arguments for a free education I want to look at the reality of what we have now. A lot of the arguments put forward by my party come down to the upfront “costs” of accessing higher education and how it impacts the most disadvantaged. It is rightly pointed out that more applications are being made by students from poorer backgrounds and that should be celebrated. But when the gap between the numbers of students from privileged backgrounds going to University is still much higher than that of those disadvantaged students we should not be so quick to pat ourselves on the back.

It must also be noted that there has been a huge drop in applications to part time courses since 2010, which disproportionately come from those in under-represented groups. A decline in applications from mature students also means that many older prospective students no longer consider higher education, which has so often given people a second chance to better themselves and lift their opportunities in life.

But for those lucky enough to make it to University, what sort of future are we actually offering them? Because, if our party’s arguments are right, then they won’t be paying that much back due to a fairer repayment system, right? Yes and no. Yes, some may be paying back less (or nothing at all) due to higher threshold of repayment now being at £21,000. However, is that really something to celebrate? Using the fear of debt repayments as a means to trap graduates in low paying jobs? I’d argue not. On the other hand, reports and figures show that the real losers from this will be the “middle earners”. Since the trebling of fees, graduates will now leave University with debts in excess of £40,000.

Lower repayments might seem an enticing prospect at first, but when you’re a middle earner, a teacher or other professional, who would have been paying off their loan into their 30s under the old system, they will now find themselves still clearing their students debts right up into their 40s and even their 50s. This means, as a report by the Sutton Trust has recently revealed, that those people will be having to find an extra £2,500 a year to cover those repayments. That equates to, what would be, an extra 6% on their income tax bills – at a time when graduates may well be raising a family and battling with mortgage costs. The very same report asserts that “even with this extra charge on middle earners, there is an increasing likelihood that the government will end up failing to recoup most of its loans…this suggests that not only are today’s students facing bigger debts, but also the new system is not producing the savings expected by ministers.”

Now although I do not agree with every conclusion and suggestion made within the report, it is startling that the very reasoning behind justifying the fees rise appears to be crumbling in on itself. We were told we must see fees trebled to ensure the funding gaps were filled and that funding could stay sustainable. The irony would be funny if it wasn’t so tragic. To add insult to injury recent figures are showing non-repayment rates are soon to be reaching the point at which the government recoups little more than it did under the previous system (possibly less!).

The government’s failure to recoup debt has even led them onto an agenda of privatising the student loan book. Whilst I do not want to dwell too much on this, the prospect should put fear into graduates as a secret report recently detailed that raising interest rates on the loans could be a surefire way to attract private buyer interest. That would signal a retrospective hike in fees, an awful prospect for those already struggling to clear their student debts.

It is clear that raising fees is nothing but an exercise in futility. It leave us with little choice but to question why raising fees was even worth it to begin with. As I and many others said from the beginning, it is a system that would eventually unravel itself as one that is completely unsustainable. We are finally being vindicated for our suspicions, with successive failed government policy as our vindicator.

Now I understand that simply finding flaws in something does nothing to actually justify my own arguments. So it is important I help to explain my personal justifications for my own views on the best way to fund higher education.

My plea: Let’s fight for a fairer funding model for higher education that ensures it is truly accessible and free for all.

We can’t escape that the number of young people accessing higher education has ballooned in recent years. With echoes of Blair’s aspirations to see half of young people going to University, and emphasis taken away from other important post-16 routes in education, I do recognise that the cost of funding higher education directly through general taxation would be incredibly costly in comparison to when it last was. However, we must not pretend that this is something unique to us. In Finland, for example, around 80% of young women are going to University where they boast the highest proportion of graduates in the world. Similar pictures are emerging in other parts of Europe with Iceland and Slovakia offering an education landscape where high numbers of young people are going into education. Despite a sharp rise in numbers of graduates in the UK we have seen ourselves fall from third to fifteenth in industrial countries when considering the proportion of said people graduating from University. The UK also spends less than the average proportion of our GDP on funding higher education.

Yet whilst boasting about our world class education, it is something that youngsters in affluent areas are still up to five times more likely to graduate than their disadvantaged counterparts from poorer areas. So is there any aspect of higher education where we still lead the way against our international counterparts? There certainly is and it is that tuition fees here are higher than anywhere else in Europe and amongst the highest in the world. Even in affluent nations where fees are much lower than here, students are demanding the abolition of fees with their demands being met by government. A prime and recent example of this is Germany, who are not exactly the most likely of suspects. If they can do it, why can’t we at least aspire to doing the same?

This moves us onto the sad reality that we have millions of graduates saddled with debt and no guarantee of them ever even paying it off in full. Just imagine if those graduates were instead helping to boost our economy? Sadly, imagining is all we can do for now. A clear choice has been made. A choice to punish the educated by trapping them into debt instead of investing in them to assist them in fulfilling and pursuing their aspirations to better themselves and society around them. This is what is expected in other countries (including Scotland where we successfully abolished fees!) and that is what we should expect of our government here as well.

For myself and others, this is about prioritising education on the basis and recognition that education is not only a public good, but a right. Because higher education isn’t just a tool which transforms students’ lives, it directly transforms our wider society too. The argument that not every person will go to University is an argument often used  to push forward the idea that not everyone will benefit from higher education. Yet with more people getting degrees now than there were people getting A-level equivalents a generation ago, it is hard to imagine putting these arguments of using debt as a means to funding those studies to that previous generation who took those A-Level equivalents.

“But it’s the economy, stupid!”

If it weren’t for the economic benefits that come from higher education, we would be a much poorer society financially. A direct example of this is found in the fact that reports have found that for every pound invested in HE, the economy benefits through seeing a return of £2.60. I find it hard to think of any single example that not only produces us with an economic incentive for investment, but equally acts as a strong proponent for social mobility with the transformative power to change lives by lifting graduates from previously poor backgrounds into economic prosperity.

Sadly the potential effects of higher education to transform lives like this will rarely be seen within the current circumstances. The majority of graduates, despite expecting to find higher paid employment, will have much of their disposable income lost through paying off their student loans and through housing debts. Imagine how much better off the individual and the society they live in could be if they were spending that lost disposable income elsewhere?

As explored above, a university education generally leads onto a higher wage. This means a graduate will, on average, usually pay a higher rate of income tax in comparison to those who did not study in higher education. Our progressive tax system accommodates for the fact that those who would make it to university, and then succeed in finding high paid employment, will be paying more towards the funding of education. This is truly a far cry from the “poor subsidising the rich” argument that is often thrown about. The reality is that we would see a much higher subsidy from the rich which, in turn, would allow the poorest in society to benefit from an accessible and free education.

As it stands we also have the ludicrous situation where someone could be paying for their education twice. Once through general taxes which go towards the public aspect of subsidising HE and secondly through the repayment of their student debts. At least if we consolidated funding into a single stream directly from general taxation we could be clear on how much we are spending whilst also protecting ourselves from being exposed to more funding black holes due to repayments being written off.

Allocating funding to the system based on upfront yearly costs would surely be far more efficient than trying to predict the earnings of graduates in decades time, whilst balancing that with public subsidy (which is being continuously slashed as it is). The former can become a reality, we just need to fight to make education a priority. Not just in our party, but in wider society where the arguments for free education still need to be won.

As the road to marketisation is being accelerated  within higher education, we need to push for change before it is too late. The deep cuts to the public subsidies is leaving insitutions more and more reliant on their own finances. Whilst this may be doable for the top Universities in the country, where applications are soaring, it leaves a dangerous prospect for those Universities who do not necessarily feature in the top half of the league tables. They will have to make difficult decisions with some already closing departments and finding ways to deliver cuts without trying to damage the experience of students. To do this without threatening hundreds, if not thousands, of local jobs is nigh on impossible. My own University where I studied, Brunel, is a prime example of an institution which has had to pass a number of “reforms” and restructuring of departments to cope with the financial difficulties.

If any of these places of study ever had to face the worst of scenarios, shutting down entirely, this would not just be a huge blow to the local economies and communities they service but to the vast numbers of disadvantaged students who are not as likely to apply to the Russell Group Universities which are the few  institutions best equipped to combat these cuts.

On top of everything that has happened we have also begun to see the government selling off the student loan book to help the funding of the expansion of University places. Whilst I agree with the government’s decision to expand places, I do not feel the threat of retrospectively hiking fees off the back  of selling the loans to private companies is a particularly fair way of funding such an expansion. Now many would contest this assertion on the basis that the government have given assurances regarding any attempts to hike interest rates on the loans taken out between 1998 and 2012. However, a secret report named ‘Project Hero’ revealed how the government could make the sell off desirable to private buyers by possibly giving them the option to raise the interest rates on the loans  to ensure they could make a profit. Such revelations truly make any ‘assurances’ ring hollow.

Can we really do this?

Now I know for many of us in the Liberal Democrats we fear that the toxicity of this issue means many are wary of reopening any wounds because of the damage it has already done to the way we are perceived. However, Nick Clegg has always told us that we must do what was right, rather than what was politically easy. I still believe that is a noble approach to take and one we should continue to follow, even in government.

I do not expect to win everyone over with this, but if we can build a broad coalition within the party to help reignite the debate on this issue, I think that once again we could become the biggest and most progressive force in British politics calling for a fairer way to fund education. I hope you will join me in this fight.

 

For further reading on a number of points raised in this blog:

 

Sutton Trust Report: http://www.suttontrust.com/our-work/research/item/payback-time/

Offa Annual Report: http://www.offa.org.uk/press-releases/offa-annual-report-warns-over-drop-in-part-time-and-mature-student-recruitment/

BBC on student numbers and HE spending: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-11438140

Other news and opinion pieces:

http://www.theguardian.com/education/2014/apr/10/university-students-loans-fees-graduate-debt

http://www.theguardian.com/education/2014/mar/21/student-loans-unpaid-debt-problem-universities-adrian-bailey

http://opinion.publicfinance.co.uk/2014/04/surely-some-mistake-on-student-debt/