EXCLUSIVE: What Lib Dem members think about Browne and tuition fees

by Stephen Tall on October 16, 2010

Lib Dem Voice has polled our members-only forum to discover what Lib Dem party members think of the party’s reponse to The Browne Report into higher education funding and student finance in England. Some 567 party members have responded, and we’ll be publishing the full results of our survey this weekend.

How you want higher education to be funded

First, we asked: How would you prefer higher education is funded?

Here’s what you told us:

  • 54% – Through general taxation (as was the case before 1998)
  • 26% – Tuition fees paid by students after they have graduated according to their earnings (as proposed)
  • 3% – Tuition fees paid by students after they have graduated (as now)
  • 12% – A graduate tax
  • 6% – Other
  • (Excluding Don’t know / No opinion (2%))

A majority (54%) of Lib Dem members, therefore, endorse current party policy as re-affirmed again this week by the Federal Policy Committee.

However, it’s noticeable that, though 54% back higher education funded through general taxation, a significant minority — 29% combined — of party members back tuition fees paid back by students after they have graduated.

Somewhat surprisingly (at least to me), the idea of a graduate tax gained little backing among Lib Dems, with only one-in-eight members opting for it. Of those who chose ‘Other’, many wanted a combination of the options provided, while some felt we needed to look at the structure of higher education more fundamentally before deciding how it is paid for.

Here’s a few of your comments:

We made a pledge not increase tuition fees. We claimed that our manifesto was fully costed and expected students and voters to trust our party on our pledge. We must not go back on what we agreed, otherwise it would take away our integrity as a party.

Increasing funding to universities is the only way they can expand and therefore increase access to people from poorer backgrounds. The public would not accept an increase in taxation on the scale required to pay for this, and it would be unfair on those not attending university. So I am in favour of the Browne proposals, but ONLY on condition that there is significant additional support for poorer people while at uni, and a capped level of repayments. I would want to see the govt promising to review the system after 5-10 years to see if it has had the effect of widening access, and amend it if it hasn’t.

I believe that is it just that students pay for the advanced learning they get. If it’s free, it’s less valued.

This is only an issue if we want 50% or therabouts of people to go to uni. There is no evidence to suggest why so many should. if only 30% went, we could afford it. We should roll back from the idea that so many people need a degree in history when we have such a skill shortage in practical industry. We shouldalso divert people into socially useful courses by charging less for things like chemistry, nursing or engineering.

Too many people go to university – it is an indictment of the low standards achieved in schools that it takes a so-called “higher education” establishment to instil basic knowledge.

Funding through general taxation is the best option, but there would need to be a reduction in the number of students going to university.

I think that degrees are “degraded” nowadays. Anyone (provided they are prepared to work) could get one. In the past it was something special that only those specially capable would be able to do (and we could afford to pay for it through the state.)

We cannot afford to fund the hugely increased numbers of students from general taxation

Students gain more from their degree than the general public (regardless of income) so should pay more, but not all, of the cost.

Party policy is based on this for a reason of principle – equality of access – and practice – sending a message to those from the poorest backgrounds that it really IS free.

Could you consider supporting The Browne Report’s findings?

We also asked: Are there any changes to the plans announced to date which would make you more likely to support recommendations based on The Browne Report?

Here’s what you told us…

  • 41% – No, there is nothing that would persuade me to support a package which includes increased tuition fees
  • 7% – No, I support the main thrust of the scheme as proposed by Browne

Of the 52% of Lib Dem party members who are open to persuasion, these are the changes you would want to see:

  • 35% – Increasing the maximum level of maintenance grant to students from families with lower earnings, and increasing the number of families who would benefit (Browne proposes grants of £3,250 per year for students from families with earnings below £25,000; with partial grants for students from families with earnings up to £60,000)
  • 35% – Variable rates of interest for graduates dependent on their future earnings, with zero or nominal rates for lower-earning graduates and higher rates for top-earning graduates (Browne proposes a flat rate of interest, which would currently be c.5%)
  • 23% – Unpaid student debt to be written off after (say) 25 years, rather than 30 years as Browne proposes
  • 22% – A cap on tuition fees so that no university can charge more than the £7k being considered by the Coalition
  • 21% – A lower level of tuition fee than the £7k being considered by the Coalition
  • 19% – Increasing the earnings threshold at which graduates would begin to pay back their debt from the £21k proposed by Browne to a higher level
  • 18% – Increasing the level of maintenance loans available to students (Browne proposes £3,750 per year loans be available to all students)
  • 11% – Other
  • (Excluding Don’t know / No opinion (4%))

A significant minority of Lib Dem members (41%) are, it is clear, wholly opposed to any increase in tuition fees whatsoever.

However, a slim majority of party members (52%) are prepared to consider supporting The Browne Report if one or more of the changes listed above are included. A small minority (7%) are fully in favour of The Browne Report’s recommendations as they stand, and see no need for changes to it.

This result was a genuine surprise to me, given the overwhelming tenor of online debate, here on Lib Dem Voice and elsewhere, has been in trenchant opposition to Browne. Our survey suggests that party members are not as implacably opposed to an increase in tuition fees as some of those heated debates would indicate — though members’ willingness even to consider supporting Browne is contingent on a series of changes which we do not yet know if the Coalition will bring forward.

The most popular change to Browne among Lib Dem members is increasing the maximum level of maintenance grant to students from families with lower earnings, and increasing the number of families who would benefit; together with the proposal it is understood Vince Cable will propose on behalf of the Coalition — that there will be variable rates of interest to ensure higher-earning graduates re-pay more than lower-earning graduates.

Might significant movement on both those issues be enough to persuade enough Lib Dems to back the Coalition’s plans? We shall see.

  • Over 1,200 Lib Dem paid-up party members are registered with LibDemVoice.org. 567 responded to the latest survey, which was conducted between 13th and 15th October.
  • Please note: we make no claims that the survey is fully representative of the Lib Dem membership as a whole. However, LibDemVoice.org’s surveys are the largest independent samples of the views of Lib Dem members across the country, and have in the past accurately predicted the results of the contest for Party President, and the conference decision to approve the Coalition agreement.
  • The full archive of our members’ surveys can be viewed at www.libdemvoice.org/category/ldv-members-poll