As students protest against tuition fees on the streets of England’s cities, the Welsh Assembly Government announced plans to keep tuition fees at current levels for Welsh students, wherever they choose to study, and make up any difference. The press is full of it this morning of course, with top marks for high drama going, as so often, to the Daily Mail for ‘Punished for being English’. Welsh Education Minister Leighton Andrews’ use of language was interesting though, and symptomatic of the problem with this whole non-debate.
Unlike their English counterparts, he told Assembly members, Welsh students ‘will not have to find either £6,000 or £9,000 to study. This is nonsense, and one of the starkest examples yet of the sort of flabby rhetoric that is going to ensure that any fee rise will have the very effect everyone claims to be most concerned to avoid – putting off the poorest students.
No-one will ‘have to find’ any money up front for fees. Not poorer students, not those in the ‘squeezed middle’, not their parents, no-one… They will, of course, have to pay more back after university, although for the most disadvantaged this will at least be on better terms than is currently the case. But whichever way you look at it – and whether you oppose tuition fees in any shape or form or see them as inevitable – it’s absolutely critical that we make sure we’re at least arguing about the right thing, and that’s debt, not up-front affordability.
That’s not to say that debt aversion won’t see some students rule themselves out of HE, and it’s that we must work hard to counter. Spurious scaremongering about ‘having to find £9,000’, especially from politicians who should know better, risks doing more harm than the proposals currently on the table….