Higher Education funding and student protests

It is unusual to see the benches of the House of Commons crammed full of MPs late on a Thursday afternoon.

But last week, as rioters invaded Parliament Square and violence erupted on the streets of Westminster, the Coalition Government faced its first really serious test of unity. Despite the reduced Government majority, I believe the Coalition passed this test convincingly.

As the five hour debate on Higher Education financing raged on in the House of Commons, a battle of a different sort was going on outside. The right to protest peacefully is a cornerstone of this country’s democracy. Whilst the vast majority of those on earlier demonstrations had been there to make their point peacefully, this time the atmosphere was very different.

There were a group of people determined to make trouble at all costs. Criminal damage is never acceptable and the sight of a student swinging on a flag at the Cenotaph made my stomach turn. Surely this is not the way to win any sort of argument – in fact, it is more likely to stop anyone listening to their views.

By contrast, I applaud the students at Loughborough and De Montfort Universities, who have both organised Question Time-style debates to discuss the pros and cons of a rise in tuition fees and student finance.

Any rise in tuition fees was always going to be extremely unwelcome as far as future students and their families are concerned. The Browne Review, which recommended the rise, was put in place by the last Labour Government at a time when there was no clear acknowledgment of exactly how large the budget deficit was and what tough measures would need to be taken to fill the hole in the public finances.

As an MP with a large world-class university in my constituency, my focus has been on ensuring university finances are put on a more sustainable footing, whilst maintaining the core ethos that Higher Education opportunities should be available to all those who seek them. However, the simple fact is that if we don’t want to go back to the days when only a quarter of school leavers went to university then we need to look at how our universities are funded.

Graduates earn, on average, at least £100,000 more over their lifetimes than non-graduates. On that basis I do not think it is unreasonable to ask them to make a contribution – once they have graduated and are earning over £21,000 a year – towards their university education. The rise in the repayment threshold ensures that the monthly cost of repayments will be smaller than it is now.

The Government is also taking positive steps to attract students from lower-income backgrounds. Under the new system, universities will only be able to charge more than £6000 for tuition if they meet strict criteria for widening access and encouraging students from less well off backgrounds to apply.

Furthermore, a £150 million National Scholarship Programme will give students from poorer backgrounds the opportunity to study at the best universities. For those students that cannot commit to full-time study, part-time students will, for the first time, benefit from the loans and fees system, which includes a tiered interest rate and the potential to have outstanding debt written off after 30 years.

In recent weeks a lot has been said about the tuition fee cap. It is now time to turn our attention towards the details of the Government’s plans for reforming the Higher Education sector as a whole. To this end, the Government is expected to publish a Higher Education White Paper in the coming months, detailing how the proposals are to be implemented.

Last Thursday the Coalition Government set aside party politics and made the right and responsible decision in the national interest. I believe that this decision paves the way for a sustainable future for our universities and a fairer system for all students.

Nicky Morgan is Conservative Member of Parliament for Loughborough and Parliamentary Private Secretary to David Willetts, the Universities Minister