Banging on about… student grants becoming loans, again.

Sorry to bang on about this, but it’s student maintenance grants becoming loans again.

The Indie have reported that the Government didn’t do any research on whether increasing the burden on students would do anything to the number of people applying for Uni.

Labour have said the admission means that it’s clear Osborne has “abandoned evidence-based policy” in his most recent budget and that that’s definitely a bad thing.

That seems a sensible argument, for once, because it is reasonable to assume that someone will have looked into the effects of these kinds of changes before they do them.

There’s two sides to every coin, though, and as with any research the question at the start is going to make a difference to whether the research fidings help a particular cause.

So if, as I suspect, Mr Osborne was simply concerned with cutting costs and not about keeping students wanting to go to Uni then it’s safe to say that the research would’ve given him the answer he wanted.

But actually, hold on. Wasn’t it only a week or so since Labour were on the Today programme arguing that Mr Osborne was wrong to be taking advice from experts on what he chose to do?

Barbara Keeley, the shadow treasury minister, said when it was put to her that an early sale of RBS shares would ‘stoke the market’ and that was advice from the industry and the independent Bank of England that the sale was “a decision for the chancellor” and agreed when asked if the BoE should keep its nose out.

In other words, the narrative at the moment seems to be that Mr Osborne should do research and then ignore it and take the decision – and then presumably the criticism – anyway.

What bollocks.

Ideology alone doesn’t make real people’s lives better

Whether you believe that public ownership is the right way to go about things or that everything should be run by profit-intending companies, if you’re pursuing transforming one to the other across the board then you better have a bloody good reason.

There were murmurings of the ideology debate of public v private hanging about before the election in May, but with Jeremy Corbyn and Andy Turnham currently playing one-up on what they’d buy back it seems both are missing the point that it doesn’t really matter.

When Ed Miliband got involved in the energy market we all ended up paying more

Most people couldn’t care less how something happens, just that it does. Most people (including me) don’t mind private or public, as long as it achieves what it’s supposed to and the outcomes are the best they can be.

In the same way, most people don’t see why you’d change something that was working unless you had a way of making it much better. Humans are naturally lazy, we all know that, and so we’re also naturally suspicious or untrusting of people who aren’t.

We just need you to tell us what difference it’d make to us

Take that person at work who seems super-human: promoted every couple of weeks, gym at lunch, charity fun-run at the weekend and fosters 2 or 3 children. Oh, and they’ve baked a cake and popped it in the break room if you fancy a slice. We all wonder what they’re after, deep down, while smiling politely and eating their delicious cake.

So as much as we don’t like that guy, we’re not going to vote for someone who is going to throw the railways, energy companies and whatever else into the turmoil of nationalisation purely because they’re going to do that.

We need more – and that’s a problem because neither Burnham nor Corbyn have ever run a railway or an energy company, or a water company. They are, at best, ‘expert customers’, and history tells us that when politicians get involved in running things they know nothing about it starts to get messy.

Soundbite politics demands promises of x number of trains being run on certain lines, an increase of x number of seats or a cut of x per cent of ticket prices. All impossible or incredibly difficult to achieve. And when it doesn’t happen, blame is on the boss – forced to hand back a bonus and then step aside for the next one in line, despite never really having a chance.

Just look at how Network Rail gets treated when things go wrong, a series of problems that are ultimately down to a lack of historic investment in the track, trains and people (there’s not enough of any of them) and a lack of enough money right now.

Or when Ed Miliband got involved in the energy market with his pledge to cap the prices suppliers could charge for gas and electricity, even without being in power or realistically having much chance of getting any, and we all ended up paying more as a result.

Authenticity is great, but we do actually want you to make our lives better too

Changing things because you believe in them, because you don’t like them or because you think something else would just be intrinsically better is fine when you’re picking paint for the spare bedroom but I don’t think it’s wrong to demand more than “because ideology” from our elected officials.

You see, as much as the coverage of the first tranche of share sales in RBS drove me mad last week – with the fictional lost £1bn leading Labour’s criticism – it was a massive missed opportunity for ideology and reason to come together.

Imagine a world where instead of Barbara Keeley, the shadow treasury minister, appeared on the Today programme to chastise George Osborne for following advice from people who know things about how money works and for generally being a Conservative, Labour had instead campaigned during the election for full-nationalisation of RBS.

Given that most people currently hate, dislike or aren’t really all that fussed about bankers nationalising a bank seems like about the right thing to do especially with only 20% or so to go.

A nationalised RBS could’ve been home to a much stronger Help to Buy ISA to give people a real prospect of owning a home instead of a fake one, it could’ve offered cheaper car insurance for young people priced out of the market and all those small business loans that we need to give people jobs and grow the economy back to where it should be.

That would’ve done some good, ticked the ideology box (not that it matters to most) and not have sounded all that mad really.

Perhaps I’m not quite right in the head but regardless of whether it’s hard-left, hard-right or centre-ist ideology that they’re spouting, unless politicians can translate the why beyond their own beliefs and into something that’ll make things better for me, then I fail to see why they bother at all.

RBS Photo by Mark Ramsay. Gas Burner photo by Steven Depolo

I’m OK with charging graduates more

It seems to me that the dichotomy of being against cuts or for cuts is falling apart as the breadth of the changes the Government are making increases – and actually, for one thing, I’m OK with cutting free money for students.

I’m always pretty fast at coming to an opinion over things, and usually equally as quick at changing my mind but I’ve stuck with this one since the budget, and for once I’m actually informed on the issue as well.

You see I was the first person in my family to go to university, I didn’t come from a well-off background, I received a maintenance grant and a full student loan and I now earn more than average, and pay back some of my student loans each month, as a result of the fact I continued my education.

Frankly, I can’t see what’s wrong with the fact that there was a system in place that allowed me to do some more, very expensive education and then only pay for it when I was seeing the benefit in my pocket.

And I think that’s the problem: what everyone seems to forget is that student loans aren’t like other loans. They aren’t really strung ‘around your neck’, as much as that’s a convenient phrase to use in television interviews and in articles.

I was the first person in my family to go to university, I didn’t come from a well-off background,

Student loans are incredibly cheap debt, they don’t appear on your credit record so they don’t affect your ability §to get other loans, you only pay them back when you’re benefiting from the education you bought and they get written off when you hit 60 whether you’ve paid a penny or not.

That’s not to say that I think the system is faultless either: earning just above the threshold and never progressing means you’ll end up paying back more than someone who earns more and that probably needs fixing somehow and the total amount of funding available each year is laughable, but on the whole the student loan system seems pretty fair.

My argument rests on the assumption that higher education isn’t going to be free.

For what it’s worth, I think charging those people benefiting from the extra education is a far fairer way of paying for it than general taxation.

So far, actually, the main arguments I’ve seen against the changes are that they put poorer people at a disadvantage, saddle young people with too much debt and that tuition fees are wrong anyway and just another example of how the Tories don’t like the young.

None of those things are true without caveats, and I guess if I’m truthful this is where I struggle with so many of the campaigns against cutting (or changing) things that the Government does.

In trying to create a message that’s simple enough for their campaign to catch the wind, complicated facts get simplified or left out and like a bad comedy programme stereotypes are used instead to fill the gaps.

If the evil Mr Osborne has decided to make the change, then of course it must be bad – and of course, it’ll only be half the story too with further evil leaps of faith ‘as standard’.

I’m happy to be enlighted, but I don’t see how someone from a less-well-off background is going to be any less able to afford to go to University as a result of the change from a maintenance grant to more maintenance loan. The amount of money on offer will still be the same, and paying it back will only start when earnings increase as a result.

I’m happy to see the stats in three years and admit I was wrong, but the figures for the number of people applying to go to University don’t seem to be showing that it’s a less attractive offer than it was.

And I’ll happily eat a very small hat if I’m wrong, but I’m still not convinced we need more people to go to University anyway: don’t we have a graduate unemployment problem?

Not all cuts can be bad, you know.

It seems to me that the dichotomy of being against cuts or for cuts is falling apart as the breadth of the changes the Government are making increases – and actually, for one thing, I’m OK with cutting free money for students.

I’m always pretty fast at coming to an opinion over things, and usually equally as quick at changing my mind but I’ve stuck with this one since the budget, and for once I’m actually informed on the issue as well.

You see I was the first person in my family to go to university, I didn’t come from a well-off background, I received a maintenance grant and a full student loan and I now earn more than average, and pay back some of my student loans each month, as a result of the fact I continued my education.

Frankly, I can’t see what’s wrong with the fact that there was a system in place that allowed me to do some more, very expensive education and then only pay for it when I was seeing the benefit in my pocket.

And I think that’s the problem: what everyone seems to forget is that student loans aren’t like other loans. They aren’t really strung ‘around your neck’, as much as that’s a convenient phrase to use in television interviews and in articles.

I was the first person in my family to go to university, I didn’t come from a well-off background,

Student loans are incredibly cheap debt, they don’t appear on your credit record so they don’t affect your ability §to get other loans, you only pay them back when you’re benefiting from the education you bought and they get written off when you hit 60 whether you’ve paid a penny or not.

That’s not to say that I think the system is faultless either: earning just above the threshold and never progressing means you’ll end up paying back more than someone who earns more and that probably needs fixing somehow and the total amount of funding available each year is laughable, but on the whole the student loan system seems pretty fair.

My argument rests on the assumption that higher education isn’t going to be free.

For what it’s worth, I think charging those people benefiting from the extra education is a far fairer way of paying for it than general taxation.

So far, actually, the main arguments I’ve seen against the changes are that they put poorer people at a disadvantage, saddle young people with too much debt and that tuition fees are wrong anyway and just another example of how the Tories don’t like the young.

None of those things are true without caveats, and I guess if I’m truthful this is where I struggle with so many of the campaigns against cutting (or changing) things that the Government does.

In trying to create a message that’s simple enough for their campaign to catch the wind, complicated facts get simplified or left out and like a bad comedy programme stereotypes are used instead to fill the gaps.

If the evil Mr Osborne has decided to make the change, then of course it must be bad – and of course, it’ll only be half the story too with further evil leaps of faith ‘as standard’.

I’m happy to be enlighted, but I don’t see how someone from a less-well-off background is going to be any less able to afford to go to University as a result of the change from a maintenance grant to more maintenance loan. The amount of money on offer will still be the same, and paying it back will only start when earnings increase as a result.

I’m happy to see the stats in three years and admit I was wrong, but the figures for the number of people applying to go to University don’t seem to be showing that it’s a less attractive offer than it was.

And I’ll happily eat a very small hat if I’m wrong, but I’m still not convinced we need more people to go to University anyway: don’t we have a graduate unemployment problem?

Not all cuts can be bad, you know.

Grants or loans? That’s not the problem.

I’m late to this one, but I’ve just read the Telegraph’s article on the NUS survey that found more than half of students thought the maintenance grant was absolutely essential for them to be able to go to University.

Well, newsflash: it isn’t – and here’s why: surveys are really good at giving opinions, and opinions are really really easy to get wrong.

Think Jeremy Clarkson, Katie Hopkins or anyone else who you’ve disagreed with lately or who popular opinion (read: what the media people think will sell papers/subscriptions/get clicks) dictates is currently not someone we should like.

Every single student who is currently at university has, if they’re in the right income bracket for one, got a maintenance grant and, if they want one, a maintenance loan and tuition fee loan too.

So, it’s not really all that surprising that when asked “Do you agree with us taking away this free thing you get?” gets a no. In fact, it’s surpassing that just 35% of the tiny sample said it’d make a difference to them.

To me, the maintenance grant cut isn’t really a cut but more a cost-saving change. First-time students will still be able to get their hands on the same amount of money for maintenance, it’s just that they’ might have to pay it back eventually.

That’s not great- because we’d all rather have free stuff than stuff that costs – but it’s also not terrible. It won’t physically stop poorer families from sending their kids to better themselves at Uni, and my guess is that in reality it won’t affect the numbers of applications UCAS sees either.

All despite the massive glut of unemployed graduates that we’ve got – and perhaps that’s the problem.

We really like to discuss and deride the growing cost of heading to university, quoting figures most 18-year-olds can’t even comprehend, but at some point should the conversation not switch round to whether University is worth it?

We need to remember the point of educating people

The reason we like to send people to have some more education is two-fold. Firstly, having a better-educated population is good for us because it means that people contribute to society and advance our technology and achievements. Secondly, higher education allows graduates to do jobs that earn them more money and that, in turn, helps get families up the ladder too.

That two groups benefit means that logically there’s two people picking up the tab: society as a whole, paying for the contribution graduates will make when they’re done, and the individual, making an investment so that they see greater returns later in life.

So it doesn’t matter whether graduates end up with £3,000 debt or £50,000 as long as the consequential earnings are enough to pay down that investment and still earn ‘more than you would’ve’ – right?

The headlines of £50,000 of debt (which sounds a lot, I admit) and surveys like this one from the NUS that support them, are just unhelpful distractions from what we must admit: we don’t need everyone who currently goes to Uni to go and study what they are studying. And it’s nothing to do with whether they’re poor or not.

We have quite a few unemployed graduates just hanging around, or doing menial jobs, to support the case that we should probably be a bit more discriminatory in our universal offer of University.

Not, as you might assume, by locking poor people out of university but instead by subject. By making our investment, as well as each person who choses to take up higher education’s investment, count a little bit more we could easily cut the number of unemployed graduates.

As the NUS survey shows, people like free stuff over not-free stuff and in these ‘times of austerity’ we must pick what we can and cannot fund, so would we not be better targeting our resources where we really need them?

If you want to complete a degree in a subject we don’t ‘need’ you to study then you’re welcome to do just that, but you’re going to have to take the risk that you’ll never pay off the £50,000 debt you’ll end up with.

On the other hand, if you fancy completing a degree as a scientist, or a doctor or something else that we desperately need then we might just see it that you come out with half that left to pay off yourself.

And, of course, there’s no need for any of this money to change hands until you’re earning. No poor people locked out of higher education but a substantial return on the millions we’re investing each year both financially and as society.

Given how the fee system is set up, it’d be ludicrous not to make our investments work a bit better for us wouldn’t it?

Photo by John Keane