'Oh, so that's who Richard Morris is..." Lord Hattersley on The Daily Politics

'An influential activist' - The Guardian

'Iain Dale, without the self loathing' - Matthew Fox in The New Statesman

You are a tinker...' - Tim Farron

Saturday, 7 July 2012

Richard Reeves, Feedom of Information requests and tuition fees...

Hmm. When last year I asked why on earth we hadn't called the revised tuition fee system a Graduate Tax, it was suggested to me that this had been blocked by the Treasury and this was why we had called it 'tuition fees', even though it was a very different system.

I put in a FOI request to the DBIS to see if this was true - here's the reply I received..

Dear Mr Morris,

Thank you for your email of 5 September 2011 where you requested:
      Any advice given to Ministers regarding whether the new system of charging fees from students for Higher Education from 2012/2013 could appropriately be described as a graduate tax, or if Ministers were specifically advised that this would be incorrect.

      I would be interested in any such documentation between August 2010 and December 2010.
The Department does not hold the specific information which you request. However, the Department does hold information falling outside the timeframe specified which I have attached for your information. The names of civil servants below the Senior Civil Service have been redacted in accordance with Section 40 of the Freedom of Information Act.

(continues with normal legal conditions)

The advice mentioned is a note to Vince Cable from Michael Hipkins of 'Financial Support for Learners' where he notes in paper to Vince titled 'How does a Graduate Tax compare to Current Student Loans' that...

"In some respects,  the loan repayment is equivalent to a capped graduate tax (and, presentationally, there is advantage in describing it as such)"

This seemed clear to me. There was no evidence that Vince was told he could not call the new scheme a Capped Graduate Tax - indeed the only evidence the DBIS could find was something giving quite the oppositie advice. Case closed. It was just a massive screw up.

Until I read this, in the Independent Interview with Richard Reeves, departing Director of Strategy to the DPM...

"He is still kicking himself over the university fees debacle which undoubtedly damaged Mr Clegg, for a broken election pledge more than an unpopular policy. Indeed, in a candid farewell interview, Mr Reeves admits he once kicked himself in the shins because of his own role in the debacle. He regrets that the near-trebling of fees was not branded a "capped graduate tax" and that he did not fight harder against the Treasury to ensure it was. "It was stupid; I was a bloody idiot," he now admits"

This seems to say quite the opposite. It sems to say the Treasury did indeed fight to stop the new scheme being branded a graduate tax.

So now I'm confused. Did we really just make a terrible branding mistake? Was my FOI question to the DBIS not clear enough? Or more troubling, was the Treasury telling the Office of the DPM one thing while the Department of Business was being told something quite different?

All in all, it seems a right old buggers muddle.


  1. Hi Richard,

    Without wanting to sound too much like a stuck record, perhaps the real reason tuition fees were never described as a 'capped graduate tax' is that they aren't!

    It's true that the current system does act like that in some (and probably the majority) of cases. However, the options to repay fees early and the exclusion of ELQ students from loans (a substantial minority of students at the moment, though destined to fall dramatically from October I would guess) means that it is what it says it is - a tuition fee and not a graduate tax.

    Would a capped graduate tax have been better presentationally? Maybe. I'm not convinced that anything could have rescued this, apart from punting the Browne review into the long grass where it belonged. Overall I think that the new arrangements will end up costing the taxpayer more over the medium to long term and still not properly secure the future of HE provision in the UK.


    p.s. I'm assuming that "feedom of information" in the title of your post is an unfortunate slip of the spell checker!

  2. Hi Tim

    Have no fear, I hear you!

    I have blogged - prompted by you :-) in the past about ELQ students and how the new system seems very illiberal towards them


    Similarly I am open mouthed in horror that we have permitted tuition fees to be paid off early - a regressive move making higher education cheaper for the well healed. Quite disgraceful and something I hope we change soon. I also don't buy the 'well mortgages are more expensive for the less well off' argument either. 'So what?' I say!

    I agree as well that in the long term I suspect this will end up costing the taxpayer more - especially as in real terms the current generation going to university are likely to earn less than their parents, and thus fewer will be in a position to pay back.

    What a mess

    And yes. that's a brilliant typo isn't it! I think I'll leave it....

  3. Mind you Tim, i still think it would have been possible to call it a graduate tax!


  4. Hi Richard,

    Tax and fee are both words that emphasise cost rather than value, so neither are particularly palatable from a presentation perspective. Maybe a term that emphasised the value of an education to an individual would have been better?! Not sure what that would be though! :)