Frank Field MP
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Can universities Russell up reform?

To balance the national accounts, taxes will have to go up and public expenditure will have to come down. Both changes offer huge opportunities to radicals.

The necessary tax increases should be used to move our tax system from being, at best, proportional, to become more progressive. Similarly, cuts in public expenditure should concentrate the mind on what key reforms would most significantly change our society for the better.

I have outlined before how I believe a radical pension reform, guaranteeing all pensioners over time an income above mean-testing, would help to begin to transform the public accounts.

The means test bill - £15bn and rising – would start to decline as more and more pensioners qualified for a decent minimum. The £15-16bn of tax subsidies to pension savings could be phased out over a fifteen year period and a closure put on any new entrants to public sector pensions.

Higher education awaits similar radical proposals. At one time our great universities were independent of Government and great powers in the land – rather like medieval Barons. It was they who shaped higher education policy, not transient bureaucrats in Whitehall.

In a letter in today’s Financial Times, I call on the Russell Group of universities – the best endowed – to declare independence before it is forced on them by the next radical Government. Their task should be to set out how many students they believe they should take and on what terms. They should cease taking orders from any Government.

The objective of 50 per cent of the population going to university was always unsound educationally. It is now financially impossible.

What the universities must not get into is a “game” with the Government whereby this absurd target is pursued when the size of individual undergraduate budgets being cut. Governments will continue to set the amount tax-payers will be asked to fund higher education. When naming their price per student the universities would determine the numbers going into higher education and what courses are offered.

We are likely to see some universities close. But isn’t that better than duping successive generations of students to undertake courses which make them worse off in terms of salaries than if they didn’t go to university in the first place?

The ground would then be set for a blooming of other forms of education (although they may not be so named) catering for those who have both been to university and those who have not. The one thing we can be sure of is that this new sector, paid for by consumers, will be stunted at birth while central Governments run a Stalinist-type command economy for higher education.
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Showing comments 1 to 5 of 5

Frank, Mentally you have quit Labour. This can be seen from your, almost daily, sensible pronouncements and ideas which you appear to publish with relish. How long before you take the final step and physically depart from that rotting party? You will be even more invigorated when you take that final step. Don't delay too long.
Comment by Anonymous on 15 Jul 2011
Frank, you talk so much sense it is truly frightening and bewildering considering that you remain in a party that, amongst them, your colleagues can't muster 10% of this wisdom.Do you really belong there - surely it must be so frustrating for you to witness such incompetence and mismanagement all around you.For both yourself and fellow readers I attach a link which aptly demonstrates the darkness that works against the true and decent MPs within your government.With Best Wishes, Frank.
Comment by Anonymous on 15 Jul 2011
It's a good point. I was a student officer in 1996/7 when Ron Dearing (commissioned by the Conservatives) was considering his recommendations which were eventually delivered to the Labour government. In his research he visited many universities and spoke to student officers amongst others. He listened briefly to myself and a few colleagues. My message was that I felt university faced becoming devalued if too many students were put through higher ed. This was also a time when it looked likely tuition fees would ultimately be borne by students, as they were. I felt this was unnecessary if govt did not go through the absurdity of aiming for 50% take up of higher education. It's unnecessary and, frankly, daft. A degree is not anywhere near necessary for the vast majority of jobs in this country. And too many graduates are being churned out disillusioned about their prospects. It's no wonder. I believe we should concentrate on getting the basics right. Still too many cannot read, write or count.
Comment by Anonymous on 15 Jul 2011
Bravo, Mr Field! Once again the only sensible solution.
Comment by Anonymous on 15 Jul 2011
Frank - the more I read your blog the more amazed I am that you are a Labour MP.How I wish there were more like you!!
Comment by Anonymous on 15 Jul 2011

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