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Opinion: Dealing with critics on our own terms – graduate contributions

August 29, 2012 10:01 AM

By Nik Alatortsev in Liberal Democrat Voice

Originally published by East Midlands Liberal Democrats

So it got me thinking: why not develop our own narrative about the issue that has arguably caused us the most grief?

By accepting the premise of calling the charges incurred by students entering university from this year "tuition fees", we tacitly accept that these are indeed fees which students pay for their tuition. Which gives the impression - thanks to all the uproar at the time the system was reformed, back in late 2010/early 2011, from the Labour Party and the NUS - that these are indeed upfront charges that students have to pay to go to university.

Of course, in practice, no-one has to pay anything upfront. But that message still hasn't got out there enough. Perhaps, thanks to the effort by Simon Hughes and others, it's beginning to get to university-entry-age people (though reports of student numbers being down this year show that there's still more room for improvement), but it's certainly not got through to the wider public.

So let's call these charges by what they actually are: graduate contributions.

They're not a tax, as such (although if we had been prepared to call it that at the time, that may have saved us a fair amount of grief!). They're certainly not fees. They're debt, perhaps, but not debt by any other measure (they don't count for mortgage assessment purposes, for instance, as other debt would). They're the amount graduates (those who can afford to do so), over a number of years, contribute towards the cost of their university education.

By changing the terms of the debate, we can start to explain why most MPs in our party were prepared to back the changes. We got a better deal for students than anything Labour or the Tories were prepared to give them (let's not forget, Browne recommended no cap at all). By refusing to talk about it, we're just giving Labour and the NUS room to criticise us without putting our point across.

And I won't even start to go into whether we kept to the second part of the infamous pledge ("I will vote against any increase in tuition fees and press the government to introduce a fairer alternative", for those that don't have it committed to their memory).

Most of this year's student intake will be finishing their degrees in 2015 (apart from the part-time students, whom we helped more than anyone else ever had by bringing them into the post-graduation payment system). They won't start repaying until April 2016. The start of this university academic year is arguably our last chance to change the terms of the debate. So let's talk about graduate contributions, and deal with our critics on our own terms.

* Nik Alatortsev was a Brent Lib Dem candidate at the 2010 Local elections, and currently works as Organiser and Press Officer for St Albans and Hertfordshire Liberal Democrats. He (very occasionally) blogs at ldnik.wordpress.com