Tuesday, 18 November 2014

NUS's Roadmap to Disaster

Hey, I like NUS. They are an organisation with great values, open discussion, and evidenced campaigns. However, their Roadmap to Free Education, published yesterday, is a big swerve back to January 2004 and the days of Tony Blair's so-called top up fees, which scraped through the commons with a majority of just 5!

Back then the hard left were strong in NUS, and conference votes on education policy were often on a knife-edge. Free education was a long held policy of the national union, and ever since Blair's Labour government introduced fees in 1998, NUS had been campaigning for their abolition. The thing is, fees were introduced in order to fund the expansion of Higher Education, and Labour had a target of getting 50% of young people going to university.

Towards the end of the decade, NUS changed tac and national conference in 2007 voted to drop the policy of free education. This was followed by the Blueprint for Higher Education which proposed a system of graduate contributions, similar to a graduate tax, and this system was fully costed out and utilised a trust for higher education funding (which the government paid into, and business could also add the fund, perhaps with tax breaks as an incentive) and the amount that a student paid was similar to the then fee level. This was adopted as policy of the national union at the 2008 NUS conference. The rationale was simple, free education was effectively a middle class tax cut and therefore some kind of graduate contribution was fair and progressive.

It was actually widely welcomed by both Labour and the Conservatives at the time as a well thought out, and affordable, policy. It was, ultimately, not adopted by government either side of the election. In monetary terms, there was little difference between the legacy system and the proposed graduate contributions, but a key difference (and perhaps why government never seriously considered it) is that students from other European Union countries would not pay anything without a price tag for the courses, but also never contribute as a graduate unless they remained in the country for work after they finished their course.

In Scotland, the parliament gained powers to set their own level of tuition fees at Scottish universities. The parliament voted to abolish up front fees in 2000 - however students were required to pay an endowment on graduation (students from England, Wales, and Northern Ireland had to pay fees up front, but the UK government still provided loans for this purpose) meaning that EU students still had to pay for their education.

In 2008, just one year after NUS dropped its opposition to tuition fees, the Scottish parliament voted to abolish the graduate endowment, effectively abolishing fees at Scottish universities for both Scottish and EU students. Students from other parts of the UK still had to pay fees, which were set by the Scottish government at just under £3000, a rate very similar to the maximum fee in England (which was increased to £9000 shortly after the 2010 increase in fees in England).

As an aside, the EU rules allow member states to discriminate against their own citizens when it comes to setting tuition fees at different rates depending on where a student comes from, but students from another EU member state must be charged at the same rate as local students. Therefore, if Scotland had voted to become independent and rejoined the EU, students from the rest of the UK would've been able to study in Scotland for free - and almost certainly crippled the Scottish Higher Education budget if fees of some sort were not reintroduced.

So we come back around to this year, and NUS's "Roadmap". It seems to me that this new move back to supporting free education is because of a 2014 NUS Conference motion that was passed with this line in the believes section;

Higher education is a public good and should be free for everyone to access.

and, crucially, this in the resolves;

To oppose and campaign against all methods of charging students for education – including tuition fees and a ‘graduate tax’ which is nothing more than a euphemism for ‘student debt’.

which clearly flies in the face of the previous policy of a graduate contribution (not specifically referenced in the motion, but the mention of graduate tax alluding to it). So nobody can accuse the NUS elected officers of going against national policy.

The problem is that the roadmap hangs on two important concepts; the first one the British public will never swallow, and the second will drive away business from the UK; higher general taxation, and increased corporation tax, both just to give the middle classes a free education.

This next point is important, even if you don't agree that free education is a middle class tax cut then you should remember this - any tax raised can only be spent once - meaning that all those hospitals, schools, and emergency services that want extra funds would have to compete against increased public funding for higher education. Ed Balls has famously spent his proposed bankers bonus tax between five and ten times (depending on which figures you believe to be more accurate), so the idea put forward by the report that "only very wealthy" people and businesses would have to be taxed is not the whole story. The report concedes (after assumptions about the current level of government funding are taken into account) ...

... we are likely to be left with a gap of around £4billion. We believe that this money can and should be raised largely by increasing the level of tax on the richest in society.

£4billion! That's per year, by the way, and in addition to the current funding. It's around 5% of the current budget deficit - or 3 times more than the EU were asking for in that surcharge. Not only that, despite the 26 page report being detailed in the apparent benefit of higher education to the UK economy (which is at least evidenced well) there is no projection of what level of taxation would be required, and at what income level the tax would start. So as I said above, tax rises can only be spent once, and if other areas of public spending are to be increased then this tax would likely have to be raised on well over half the working population, or at a rate well above the current student loan repayment rate.

The current repayment rate is 9% on earnings above £21,000; so considering the government contribution would effectively double and the report wants only the richest in society to pay this additional tax, perhaps the rate would be 15% on higher rate taxpayers (currently those earning over £42,000), which is clearly political suicide for any government that introduces it. On top of that there's really bad news for current and former students, like me; graduates that took out tuition fee loans from 1998 to the present day would have to pay both the new tax, and their student loan repayments. The report actually concedes this;

Unfortunately it will be financially impossible for government to [...] fully compensate those who had to pay for their degree, or are in the process of repaying the cost.

This is fully 10% of the current working population!! This is ridiculous!! NUS, you're better than this. I've defended you so much in the past. Do your maths properly.

Additionally, EU students will also be paying nothing and possibly never pay tax in the UK either (yet another thing UKIP can complain about). Confusingly, the report admits the problem with EU students and then proposes something that wouldn't ever be agreed whist there's such animosity with the EU;  "greater tax cooperation between EU countries," which means EU countries would pay the UK some of tax they receive from those that studied in the UK, and "by operating a graduate tax on [UK] expatriates" (who emigrate outside the EU) which is completely impossible as you can't tax someone who has left the country ... the current arrangements mean contractually you still have to pay back your loan to the SLC, which at least could be enforced in the courts of the country an expat is domiciled.

The report goes on to say; "the student loan system decreases the productivity of the economy by lowering the disposable income of graduates", and then completely forgets that increased taxes do exactly the same thing, but for more people over a longer period, plus the 10% of the current working population would have more to pay. At best the comparative impact is neutral.

There are some other suggestions about how the government might raise the money though. There is the return of the idea of the trust for higher education, which is a good start, but then goes on to talk about the financial transaction tax (already spent by a future Labour government on the NHS), cracking down on tax evasion (already spent - schools), increasing inheritance tax by 5% (Labour have actually spent it 2 to 3 times over - ie, proposing 10% to 15% - to pay for additional care in old age).

The fact of the matter is, since the expansion of higher education under the last Labour government, university funding has risen exponentially. Is this a bad thing? I don't think so. The NUS report clearly lays out the benefits higher education brings to a country's economy.

The problem is that free education is not free, and if you don't attempt to recoup the cost of university degrees directly from those who attended then you have to raise taxes by at least the same amount. If you don't have a graduate tax, then the tax is paid by people who never went to university. If you spend that tax on other things, it can't be spent on higher education. If you're won't (or can't) cancel the debt/repayments of the legacy system, those people pay twice. If you have one set of people who never went to university paying for those who are now, another set of people who did go to university paying for both themselves and current students, and a third set of people being subsidised by the other two groups; how is that remotely fair, progressive, or ever likely to become government policy?

This report doesn't add up. Perhaps that's why nobody at NUS towers did the maths on who would get taxed.

This is a Roadmap to Disaster, not one to a free higher education system.

JR

PS: If anyone at NUS can address my concerns, feel free to drop me a message (DM me on twitter for email).
PPS: Since I'm still an individual member of the national union until at least January, if you're a national officer responsible for this area of policy and you've read this - I expect a response.

Monday, 3 November 2014

Your New Opinion Polls Destination

Last week, my web development business was proud to launch UK Opinion Bee, an opinion polls data website and API.

UK Opinion Bee is aiming to be the country's premier opinion polling website and, uniquely, other developers will be able to use the data held by the site in their apps and statistics, with free access to an API set.

You can see all the Westminster polling data from this parliament, which you can split into each polling company's figures, and data from this year for the Scottish Parliament and EU in/out polling since the Euro elections. You can see all of this in graphical form with charts plotting the data over time. Also, you can add your thoughts and opinions, as you can leave comments on each poll on the site. We're not done yet as more features are in the pipeline.

Of course, you can also follow updates on UKOB's twitter feed.

In the run up to the 2015 General Election, 2016 Holyrood Election, and a possible EU Membership referendum in 2017, there's no better time for the launch of this website. This is SoRight's first major development contract and I hope this project is a great success.

If you're into politics and polls, put UK Opinion Bee in your bookmarks now!

JR

Sunday, 5 October 2014

Tories 2 Point Lead in GB Poll, UKIP 9 Point Lead in Rochester

Polls are sometimes easily explained, and sometimes baffle everyone. Sunday's papers have two polls; one GB-wide, one in Rochester and Strood - the constituency of Conservative to UKIP defector, Mark Reckless.

The Westminster voting intention poll, by YouGov for the Sunday Times, has topline figures of Con 36%, Lab 34%, Lib Dem 7%, UKIP 13%. That means that both YouGov's polls since the end of the Conservative Party Conference have had small leads for the the Tories over Labour.

This is explained very simply by a widely regarded successful conference for the Tories, coupled with the not so successful Labour conference in the previous week. We won't know if the conferences will have had any lasting effect until next week, but there is a perfectly good reason for the movement in the polls.

The poll in Rochester and Strood, however, is less straight forward. The numbers, from Survation for the Mail on Sunday, with changes since the 2010 general election, are; Con 31% (-18), Lab 25% (-3), Lib Dem 2% (-14), UKIP 40% (n/a as they didn't contest this seat in 2010). That's a 9 point lead for UKIP over the Tories.

The lead for UKIP is slightly surprising, but not inconceivable. The loss of support for the other parties (together with a movement away from Others) makes up the entire vote share for UKIP. The real head scratcher though is the Lib Dem vote, which has seemingly gone wholesale to UKIP.

You would have thought that those who supported the Lib Dems in 2010 would be the very last people to switch to UKIP now - which means that either Labour have lost as much as the Tories have to UKIP, and Lib Dems have switched to them (which is possible but unlikely in a by-election), or those who voted Lib Dem last time were only doing so because they didn't want to vote for either of the two big parties. What does this say about Lib Dem voters?!

Does that mean that UKIP are the new protest party of choice? Well, yes; but more importantly should UKIP win this by-election (and that's far from certain since the contest hasn't even been called yet) will they retain that support at the general election in just 7 months time? Survation say that the UKIP supporters they polled said that 88% would vote for them in May, and a back of a fag packet calculation tells us that means they will lose 5 points, putting them practically neck and neck with the Tories (should they be the main beneficences).

In practice, people are rubbish at predicting what they'd do in the future. When faced with the choice of a Cameron/Miliband Prime Minister or Conservative/Labour Government, they are more likely to go back to their original allegiance.

The big question in all this is, do voters actually know why they vote for UKIP?

JR

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Feminism Must Stop Being Used as a Synonym for Man-Hating (#HeForShe)

Not my words (in my best Alan Carr voice), the words of Emma Watson in a speech to the United Nations. She was launching a new UN Women campaign, HeForShe; a gender-equality campaign which Emma herself has formally invited all men to join.

The speech focused on gender stereotyping of men and women, and how it affected both themselves and the opposite gender. "You don't often talk about men being imprisoned by gender stereotypes," Watson emotionally orated, "but I can see that they are, and when they are free things will change for women as a natural consequence."

She added, "If men don't have to be aggressive in order to be accepted, then women won't feel compelled to be submissive. If men don't have to control, women won't have to be controlled."

Gender, and indeed sexual, stereotyping is something that I have often been subjected to. For example, I really like musicals; when I'm in London I will often go and see a show if I possibly can; but such a position is seen by society as un-masculine or simply gay (despite Neil Patrick Harris telling us it's not just for gays any more). Well, I'm straight - so such a stereotype is a problem for me.

I was lucky to be brought up by a family that didn't push gender stereotypes on to me, in the same way that Emma Watson (as she says in her speech) was lucky to be afforded advice and encouragement that was blind to her gender.

Emma also tackled the problem of how feminism is seen, in her speech. She said, "fighting for women's rights, has far too often become synonymous with man-hating. If there is one thing for certain, it is that this has to stop." This could be taken in two ways, and perhaps it was left purposely ambiguous.

As a students' union welfare officer (5 years ago now), I was more or less excluded from feminism, and the reason was because I was never invited, or welcomed, to stand with the women's campaign. Isn't that horrendous? Isn't that just counter-productive? Indeed, Waston told the UN the same. She referenced a 1997 speech by Hillary Clinton about women's rights, where only a small proportion of the audience were male. This exclusion was what stuck out for Emma, "How can we affect change in the world, when only half of it is invited, or feel welcome, to participate in the conversation?"



That half of the world has been formally, indeed cordially, invited to join this campaign. I intend to do so. Who's with me?

JR

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

The Case for Yes is "Not Proven"

Those who know anything about the Scottish legal system will know that there are three verdicts that can be arrived at in a criminal court case; guilty, not guilty, and not proven.

Not proven doesn't acquit the defendant, it just means that the prosecution's case hasn't been strong enough to convict - and the default position is the defendant is free to go.

The same situation seems to have arisen in the Scottish Referendum. If you believe the polls, the Yes campaign has simply not proven the case for independence, and in the end Scotland will vote for the default position of remaining in the union. The Yes camp have simply failed to answer the big questions on currency, jobs, the economy, and business, and can't provide any reassurance on things like corporation tax that will keep large companies domicile in Scotland (and therefore paying all their tax to the Scottish government).

With just 31 hours until the polls open, time is running out for the nationalists to prove to the Scottish people that they should vote Yes.

JR