Friday, 16 July 2010

Cable can float it - but will it sink?

Vince Cable has floated the possibility of the ‘graduate tax’; that people who have obtained degrees will pay a higher rate of tax in order to repay the cost of their tuition.

During the course of yesterday, and in a series of interviews, the policy seemed to develop . . . That there might be an eventual cap on the total amount paid . . . That the money might be ring-fenced by HMRC to go back into HE. But Cable and his colleagues, in the main, refused to answer any seriously probing questions on the basis that we ‘don’t want to preempt any of the findings of the review into HE funding.’ (Other questions included ‘What happens to graduates who leave the UK?’ and ‘What about students who come from EU Member States?’)

Implicit in this proposal is the principle of the Treasury ring-fencing money - that is, the extra graduate tax income must go straight back to HE funding. This is a principle the Treasury avoids like the plague - if they start it for one department, the pressure is on to do it for others . . .

If Cable and his government colleagues aren’t prepared to answer questions, why trumpet the policy? What we have is another half-baked idea from this present coalition government. So why rush forwards with a plan so ill thought-through?

A lot has to do with where Cable is coming from.

Tony Blair introduced the Student Loan repayment system because his government vastly expanded the number of students going into HE. The cost of this education had to be paid for. In opposition the LibDems took the comfortable position of saying they would abolish tuition fees . . . safe in the knowledge that they would never be in a position to implement it. But now they find themselves tied into a Government that is likely to agree to a removal of a cap on fees - almost the opposite of their chosen position.

The LibDems gained great support from student rich constituencies in the General Election. They calculated this . . . and sadly many student fell for the cynical (if effective) ploy. LibDem MPs now find themselves in a potentially difficult position. Abstentions may have been made available, but they’re not face-saving enough. Cable - and in generous moments I have to feel sorry for the guy - finds himself in the position of having to square a circle.

Since I used to teach maths I can tell you that you can’t square a circle . . . which is a regular polygon with an infinite number of straight sides - a square having four. But you probably already knew that.

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