Q. In your opinion how will raising tuition fees benefit Higher Education?
(John Stevenson): If a Higher Education establishment decides to raise its tuition fees it’s going to have to justify this to its potential students. The onus will be on the establishment to attract students because it will be the students themselves who pay, not the state. Universities and Colleges will have to demonstrate more that they are providing a student-based education that benefits applicants in their future career, or they simply won’t be guaranteed an income.
You have publicly backed the government’s stance, but students feel aggrieved by the plans – is there really no alternative?
I back the plans because of the context in which they are proposed. This country is currently paying £150 million a day in loan repayments in interest alone because of the way the previous government handled its finances. This means that there has to be cuts in some areas. The average graduate earns much more than the average non-graduate and I just don’t think it’s fair in these straitened times that the taxes of someone on a low or minimum wage should go toward subsidising people who will go on to earn much more than them.
If you’re asking whether my opinions would be different if this country had unlimited funds – then yes, of course. I don’t see higher education as a luxury, and I don’t back these plans because of stubborn idealism. I back them because I think they are the fairest way to deal with the problems we have at the moment.
One argument against raising fees is that it will cut off students who are from lower income families – do you disagree with this statement?
Yes. The Coalition Government has gone to great lengths to ensure that this isn’t the case.
Firstly, no student will ever have to pay a penny up-front. That will not change. A person with nothing in their bank account will be able to start a course and complete it without spending anything on tuition. I think this is vitally important, and this includes part-time students who, at the moment, have to pay fees the moment they start. Secondly, the repayment threshold has been raised from £15,000 to £21,000, meaning that around 25% of graduates (those paid the lowest) will be better off under these proposals than they are now. Thirdly, students from a low-income household will receive a non-repayable grant of £3,250 to spend there and then, at College or University – around £350 more than they get at the moment.
If a University or College decides to charge more than £6,000 it will have to demonstrate to government that it is attracting applications from students who are from a lower income background. There will also be an extra £150 million for a National Scholarship Programme which will incentivise students who have the ability, but not the means, to apply for courses.
The NUS has criticised the Browne report for not including any student representatives – do you think that this damages its legitimacy, when it is students that will be directly affected?
Reviews like the Browne report are meant to be totally independent and objective. They are compiled, released, digested, then acted upon (or not). I can see why its legitimacy might be questioned by the NUS, but to consult polls and samples would have compromised its purpose. In actual fact Higher Education affects everyone; from the students to the universities to the taxpayer to the employer – so I don’t think the NUS should feel too aggrieved.
It must also be remembered that the Coalition Government didn’t take all of the Browne report’s recommendations to policy. The report said that there should be unlimited fees; we didn’t think that was fair.
Martin Dodd representation Sabbatical for the University of Cumbria Students Union met with you last Friday, what were the outcomes of that meeting?
I had a very good talk with Martin, and a couple of other students, and we both made clear our positions. Martin passed on his, and a number of student’s concerns, about the changes and I listened whilst I tried to explain why I thought these were the fairest possible proposals. I don’t think we changed each other’s minds; but that doesn’t mean the meeting wasn’t productive.
It concerned me that some students felt they were being attacked or victimised – this is why I want to answer questions like these; not because I think I’ll suddenly change everyone’s mind, but because I hope people will see where these changes are coming from and that the motivation behind them isn’t sinister or nasty, but positive. And I hope Martin got that impression after our meeting.
On Friday 26th, University of Cumbria Students protested peacefully outside your office. Many were left disappointed that you didn’t come outside to answer their questions. Why didn’t you come outside to speak with them?
First of all you’re absolutely right to use the word “peacefully”. The students in Cumbria proved that these protests aren’t about violence, but are about legitimate expression of objection.
I was keen to understand the motivations and feelings behind the protests, which is exactly why I met with Martin Dodd earlier that day, but the simple matter of the fact is that I had a fully booked up surgery at the same time, meeting with constituents. Those at the protest may have noticed people coming and going. I think it would have been a disservice to my constituents had I changed or cancelled the surgery. And whilst protest is a legitimate expression, it isn’t an automatic pass to supersede my other constituents who wanted to see me.
Mr Dodd was quoted as saying “John Stevenson won by only 800 votes. There are 3,000 students in Carlisle.” – What is your response to this comment?
I’ve seen Carlisle’s student population grow and grow, especially since the founding of the University of Cumbria, and unquestionably the effect has been positive. More activity, more volunteering, better and varied nights out – for locals as well as students – all because of the number of students arriving. I want more students in Carlisle, not fewer; the city misses its student population during term break, and I want the city to be as student friendly as possible.
Clearly, the implication of Martin’s quote is that I should be afraid that the student population represents a big enough block that it will vote me out if I continue to back the changes. He’s wrong to presume all students think and act the same way.
Do you feel that the Conservative Party has alienated a demographic of young voters because of the plans to raise the cap?
Again, it would be wrong for anyone to presume that all young people think the same way. I think opinions and ideologies amongst young people are just as varied as older people, and that some young people believe, as I do, that these proposals are the fairest way that Higher Education can go forward.
I don’t think these plans will alienate young people from the Conservative party. These plans are about freedom and taking responsibility; putting back in what you’ve taken out; making sure that the opportunity to invest in your own education is available no matter what background you come from. These are sentiments that I hope resonate with all; old and young.
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