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As you are almost certainly aware, the National Union of Students (NUS) published a paper laying out

a new model for Higher Education (HE) funding earlier this year. The document was called The Blueprint, and proposes a graduate tax model of funding for undergraduate qualifications, including those outside of the traditional BA/BSc framework, such as some vocational training, etc. This is a change from previous NUS policy, which was to focus their energy on opposing the lifting of the cap, while supporting the ideal of free education. Education Not for Sale (ENS) opposes The Blueprint; not only are we critical of the NUS’ tactic of abandoning the fight for free education, we also think there are serious problems with the funding model they have proposed. This flyer is intended to explain some of The Blueprint’s flaws, and the strategy that Education Not for Sale are taking towards The Blueprint and the NUS, and is aimed at students’ union sabbatical teams, executives, councils and so on. While ENS would like to see a united student movement, we feel that open and democratic debate is essential to this, and therefore although we do not see the NUS as a rival or enemy, we feel the need to explain why we are urging students, political organisations and unions to continue the fight for free education. Education Not for Sale support free education for all, living grants for all, and more – our statement of policy can be seen in Where We Stand (enclosed for students’ unions that have received this document through the post and also available on our website). We absolutely reject on principle the NUS’ proposal as an end, but this briefing is intended to critically engage with it as a means to improving the current situation with a view to continuing the fight for free education. The flaws listed in this document are intended primarily to address the question of whether The Blueprint would be better than the current system; we feel it is obvious that The Blueprint is not the ideal situation, that it is not an end goal. For more information about Education Not for Sale, visit www.free-education.org.uk, or to contact us, email ensdiscuss@lists.aktivix.org

Notes:
The Blueprint’s figures need to be adjusted for inflation from 2006-7 prices, meaning that the rates are higher than they appear, both because people will assume the figures are current, and because the failure of pay to track inflation in many industries recently has led to a decline in ‘real’ wages, thus meaning that even after adjustment in line with inflation, they are less affordable than they would have been at the time. It’s also worth noting that the graduate tax payments would be made on top of any repayments of student maintenance loans, as they only replace repayments on student fee loans, and the existing maintenance package would be expected to stay in place. Therefore those paying graduate tax repayments can expect another 9% of the difference between their salary and £15,000/year to go towards this until the debt is paid off. The NUS failed to point this out in The Blueprint, so their figures only account for the graduate tax. Finally, although not a criticism of the funding model proposed by NUS, and therefore not included in the following pages, it is vitally important to note that the NUS propose selling off student loans to private companies as one method of raising money for the implementation of The Blueprint’s model. This is of course massively controversial and unwise, and should be resisted by the student movement, not encouraged. Even overall supporters of The Blueprint can and should make clear their opposition on specific points such as this which are beyond the pale.

No doubt you will be familiar with The Blueprint by now, but the core points are summarised below:    HE funding administered by a “People’s Trust for Higher Education” controlled by representatives of HE institutions, HE students, and graduate employers, with the chair being appointed by the Secretary of State. Personal contributions based on "ability to pay", "sustained income over time", and "amount of accredited Higher Education undertaken", lasting for 20 years. Ability for (non-mature) student/graduate to pay off some, but not all, academic credits in advance and ability for their employer to pay off some academic credits in advance – The Blueprint does not state whether an employer could pay off all credits or not. Continuation of other income streams such as partial government funding, donations from alumni, sponsorship by business, etc.

NUS President Wes Streeting has suggested that The Blueprint was produced in an attempt to break the ‘political consensus’ that fees were the only or best way to fund HE. Wes is quite right in recognising that there is a relatively strong political consensus on fees. However, he overstates its strength; the Liberal Democrats still support free education, and a much stronger New Labour government nearly suffered a massive defeat over top-up fees. Wes does not necessarily have students’ best interests at heart in changing tactics; at a public debate with an ENS member, he stated that even if he had “unlimited” money, he “still wouldn’t spend it on free education”, but instead would fund “schools that look like palaces”, staffed by “teachers on bankers’ salaries”. While ENS supports the struggles of staff to get better facilities and wages, Wes chose his words in a way that exposed his lack of concern for the student movement and student body of the UK. He also had ample time to retract the comment, but chose not to. Even if we were to assume that Wes was sincere in his argument that this is the best tactic, we disagree – the NUS’ approach of playing into individual funding of HE is dangerous. It makes small concessions look larger because they are close to the position students are actively arguing for, puts less pressure on the government, and asks for minor alterations to the system that are not necessarily better. It legitimises the consensus on education being individually funded by moving the main dissenting voice within the consensus. The Blueprint challenges the consensus on fees, but fails to challenge the consensus that education cannot be free. This leaves the student movement in the awkward position of being better represented and better fought for by the Liberal Democrats and teaching unions (UCU Left and UCU Scotland both support free education) than their own national union. Education Not for Sale takes a different tactic, and argues that students need to fight for free education funded by the fairest and most logical methods (e.g. progressive income tax), while also exerting influence over decisions taken within the current framework, such as the lifting of the top-up fee cap. We think it’s necessary both to argue within NUS for a better policy and tactic, but also to work outside of it and build up networks of fighting students’ unions which do not follow the NUS line but push the consensus back towards free education. If you agree with us, contact us and get involved in our campaigns.

Passing the Buck
 The Blueprint is not a stand-alone solution – it relies on the government finding alternative funding for National Insurance contributions so that credit pay-offs by employers can be offset against them. The NUS suggests that savings could be made due to the removal of various administrative tasks allowed by this model, but this doesn’t take into account the massive administration required to calculate every graduate’s contributions on a monthly basis, etc. While neither side has hard figures to back up their argument, the other side of the argument would be that this would require an increase in income tax or capital gains tax or something of the sort. Rather than a complicated system of government funding through multiple sources and channels, offsetting against other public services, etc, why not just progressive taxes directly funding education?

Unpredictable
 The Blueprint has only tentatively suggested vague ideas to be fleshed out by the government and the proposed People’s Trust. This gives them scope to interpret these vague proposals in a way that suits the agenda of the day. The NUS have aimed for maximum flexibility in a desperate attempt to ‘win’ a campaign, rather than trying to force the government to be fair or democratic. The government could easily take The Blueprint’s model and fill in the gaps in a way which made education unaffordable for the majority, while seemingly doing as the NUS has asked. The Blueprint allows for fluctuations in various figures related to the cost of education. This means that after starting payments (or even while still studying) a student may find that the price of credits changes and they can no longer to pay them off as they had planned, or that the government has ramped up the variable they control in the equation, thereby making repayments unaffordable for some. We have already seen the government break their pledges over the current system by not increasing student support in line with inflation, but still increasing fees, etc. The NUS has failed to include vital figures, such as the cost of credits and whether there would be a cap on employers paying off credits. These omissions make it difficult to know how fair the system will be. If, for instance, employers can pay off a whole degree, then bright minds who are headhunted for well-paid jobs at rich firms may have their education paid off by their new boss, while those who work in a newsagent are stuck in a 20-year payment period.

Marketising
 The NUS itself openly admits that its model would shift HE towards providing “part-time study” for “the workforce”, and “meet*ing+ the needs of businesses”. The implication of this is that HE would become a training tool for employers, helping to casualise work and shift towards part-time work, while genuine academic work would be squeezed even further out of undergraduate work in favour of vocational and marketised curricula. While vocational training is absolutely necessary, it should not come at the expense of more abstract or inter-disciplinary courses, etc. Nor would it be fair on the disadvantaged if training that should be performed on-the-job or through apprenticeships became costly HE qualifications. Similarly, students should not support the picture of work painted by The Blueprint – casualised, part-time work almost inevitably pays lower wages, offers less job security and benefits, etc. Employers who make large contributions to their employees, or who make ‘charitable’ donations to the funding body, and who sit on the board controlling funding, are much more likely to want a marketised system that panders to their desires, allows them to set the syllabus, and strips HE of its academic integrity. The NUS claim to oppose the marketisation of education, and yet the model they have suggested puts heavy emphasis on the centrality of employers and businesses in sponsoring individuals, controlling HE funding, etc. While industry-HE links are necessary to ensure (at least some) education is practical, this should be based on voluntary consultation by institutions, not business control over funding, etc.

The NUS claim to oppose the marketisation of education, and yet the model they have suggested puts heavy emphasis on the centrality of employers and businesses in sponsoring individuals, controlling HE funding, etc. While industry-HE links are necessary to ensure (at least some) education is practical, this should be based on voluntary consultation by institutions, not business control over funding, etc.

Undemocratic?
 The backbone of The Blueprint is the People’s Trust. However, there is no guarantee that the Trust would be democratic; the NUS does not propose that representatives be elected, for instance. Nor does The Blueprint state what grade of staff would represent institutions or employers, or in what proportions the People’s Trust would be composed; it is possible that the trust would be half employers, one quarter Vice-Chancellors, and one quarter traditional degree students, leaving vocational students and teaching staff unrepresented, etc. Furthermore, because of practical factors, students are likely to have less influence on the board unless all members are limited to a short period on it; employers could stay on for 40 years or more, while undergraduates would probably be on the panel for 2 or 3 years at the most. Although the NUS claim that the People’s Trust would be “independent”, the chair would be appointed by a member of the government, it is to submit to “ministerial guidance” and legislation, and the government would be able to set and alter the key constant in the formulae used to determine contributions, thereby controlling the tax. This means that in reality the People’s Trust would have very little independence – decisions would be fed to it by the civil service for rubber-stamping and the government could easily put ‘their own people’ in the chair (or even in the whole panel, if representatives are ‘co-opted’ (appointed) rather than elected.

Unfair?
 The idea of paying off credits in advance could undo the good work of making the graduate tax progressive – if the cost is set too low, then the rich could pay off a large chunk of their contributions, thus lowering how much they pay, whereas if it is too high, only the rich will be able to do it, buying their way out of the 20-year period, while the less well-off cannot. Again, no solid figures can be given due to the NUS’ vagueness, but if you play with the numbers yourself you will see that it is conceivable that someone could end up paying less than someone on half their wage if the figures are set correctly.

The Wrong Principles
 The graduate tax is based on the idea of a service-user fee, whereas HE should be funded on the basis of ability to pay, just like the majority of public spending, including the NHS, lower levels of education, defence, etc. This is because everyone benefits from HE, not just graduates, while businesses and the rich benefit disproportionately through their roles as employers, the main consumers of new technologies, etc. The Blueprint does not call for, or even hint at, free education. The NUS has an obligation to be fighting for students’ interests, improving the accessibility of HE, etc. The Blueprint fails to adequately do that, because the NUS have turned their back on the struggle for free education. The Blueprint actively condones the idea of paying for HE on an individual ‘user’ basis, and if successful, would lock us into a situation of accepting a similar system to fees for at least 15 years before it broke even. This would be a massive setback for those who want to see free education reintroduced across the UK.

Education Not for Sale stands for a campaigning NUS which mobilises a ‘rank-and-file’ movement of student unions and the activist left. We organise in the NUS, running candidates in elections and taking part in its decision-making structures, but we also organise outside of – in other words, without the support of – the NUS when we need to. This allows us to argue for our views within NUS itself and to continue to autonomously campaign for free, democratic, secular education and our other goals when the NUS fails to do so. It is key to such work that we have the support of what we call fighting students’ unions. Our “one foot in, one foot out” approach extends to The Blueprint, as it did to the Broke & Broken campaign; while we will support NUS demonstrations, for instance, we will do so on the basis of arguing our own politics – we will carry banners and flyers in support of free education and so on. We will cooperate with the NUS’ leadership, but we refuse to sell out our politics in order to do so, or to advance ‘solutions’ that we believe will do little to ameliorate the immediate-term situation and will be profoundly damaging to free education campaigning. Since the NUS governance review, we feel that the NUS has become even less democratic (that is, even less in touch with the ‘rank-and-file’ of ordinary students) than it was previously. This has led to a debate within ENS about the best way to respond to this lack of democracy, and has caused us to focus more heavily on the areas where we think we can still be effective – the NUS autonomous campaigns and forming a network of fighting students’ unions. We have not given up on NUS altogether, though. Therefore we welcome contact and support from students’ unions whether or not they are affiliated to NUS and whether or not they wish to be part of a network of fighting students’ unions outside of the NUS. If your students’ union supports free and democratic education, democracy in the NUS and Higher Education, a politicised student movement, and other ENS goals, contact us and join the fighting left of the student movement. For more information about Education Not for Sale, visit www.free-education.org.uk, or to contact us, email ensdiscuss@lists.aktivix.org