Some questions for Lord Browne over soaring university tuition fees

The radical review of university tuition fees by Lord Browne will allow universities to charge unlimited fees. It proposes a free market in fees, though universities charging more than £6,000 a year would lose a proportion of the fee to help cover the cost of student borrowing.

Not only does this sound complicated, it will also deter many poorer students from applying, and even “middle class”.  But why is Lord Browne on one hand expecting teenagers to amass a huge debt for their university education, and then on the other hand saying that if they later have a job which doesn’t pay very much, they won’t have to pay it back?

He said: “They will only pay it back when their earnings go above £21,000. If you choose to go into a job which doesn’t pay very much or if you choose to go out of the workforce to build a family, you won’t have to pay it back.”

That doesn’t make sense to me, it doesn’t seem good economics. Surely a loan is a loan and should be repaid, just like any other loan, else it is wasted public money, which defeats the object of this review.

It is estimated that only about 40 per cent of university graduates will repay their entire loans — including interest — with the rest of the debts being written off by the government. So how can this be perceived as a successful and workable scheme?

Crucially, what guarantee will students have of improved teaching quality and more contact hours with lecturers?

This is also set to result in the first major coalition confrontation as Lib Dem MPs  signed a pledge not to vote for rising tuition fees during the general election.

I shall be visiting a university open day this weekend with my younger son James. It will be interesting to see what parents and lecturers say about this. I have felt a sense of relief during our previous visits that the review had not yet been published, that the moment which hard-pressed parents of future university students had been dreading was yet to come…

Update 13 October: Cambridge’s Lib Dem MP Julian Huppert promises to stick to his election pledge and will oppose university tuition fee increases. You can read his interview in the Cambridge News here. This issue contributed to the defeat of the city’s Labour MP Anne Campbell back in 2005 and is obviously very important to Cambridge’s large student population. This world leading university is proactively seeking bright students from less privileged backgrounds and, like many other other universities, may suffer as a result of these proposals.

Nick Hillman, our Conservative parliamentary candidate who stood against Julian in the 2010 general election, reminds me that although Julian does not support Lord Browne’s proposals, he has not come up with any ideas about what should be done.