John Glen is MP for Salisbury.
Over the weekend there has been some speculation over the voting position of our Lib Dem coalition partners on the increase in tuition fees. An "en masse" abstention was mooted but now we hear that Vince Cable is personally committed to the policy. Clearly, to committed Conservatives there are also compromises across some policy areas which are difficult - especially in the area of constitutional reform – but politics is always a difficult blend of principle and pragmatism – the challenge is to keep the first element a bigger part of the process! Coalition means compromise on all sides.
For me one important test for the success of the new policy is whether it will enable the fulfilment of potential from wherever it comes. The policy we have does enable young people from less well off backgrounds to know that they won't need to pay back their fees until they earn £21,000 and extra funds will be available to encourage those from those backgrounds to gain additional support. In Wiltshire we have One Degree More which is aiming to expand the funds available for making grants to those who may not otherwise apply to university. An excellent initiative.
However, the other important test is will the new policy encourage the delivery of relevant and useful courses which, across the country as a whole, allow a measure of education for education's sake, but also will it enable an increase in the aggregate skills in employable disciplines to facilitate economic growth and allow young people to meet their aspirations and potential. Personally, I have always rejected Labour's target of 50% of people going to university in 2010 but I also reject the view that university is right for everyone. The Coalition government's massive expansion of apprenticeship opportunities will help but the real challenge in this area is to invigorate the reputation and status of non-university career tracks too. It is the left which has the chip on its shoulder with respect to university education whereas many of the most successful business-people and wealth creators did not go to university. It is my hope that the combined effect of the new policies will bring greater scrutiny over what return students can expect from their degrees resulting in an increase in value for money. The outcome we want is better educated young people doing more useful courses leading to the fulfilled ambitions they had when they left school. This has to be better than the many young graduates who currently leave university courses with big debts AND the even bigger challenge of making their degrees seem relevant to prospective employers.
If the coalition delivers improved outcomes for all young people and enables the less well off to meet their aspirations in the same way then the change in policy will be a success. Focusing entirely on the level of debt without the change we hope to see in outcomes is bound to be difficult sum to balance. By recognising it is not just about how many "go to uni" but how many get a job they are happy with afterwards, the policy can be more fairly judged.