Monday, August 06, 2007

Revenge Of The Soundbite

Certain things in politics are bound to leave you feeling slightly dirty. As it’s been in the blogosphere lately, I should go on the record at this point to say that Liberal Democrat practices at by-elections are not such a thing. The other parties should grow up a little and be clear that there is a difference between saying that the other candidate is an unqualified carpetbagger who doesn’t care about the area and saying, “He blows goats, I have proof”; one is a legitimate query about the suitability of a candidate for the job, the other is a baseless character assassination.

But I digress. The political thing leaving me feeling dirty at present is the creation of soundbites. Hopefully I should not need to explain to this readership the myriad of reasons why this is the case, but the problem remains that, very occasionally, soundbites have their uses.

The ongoing work of the Federal Working Group on Further and Higher Education has, unsurprisingly, brought the issue of fees to the fore in LDYS’ internal policy forums. At the moment, the intellectual right of the organisation are using the opportunity to score some points off the left, on the charge that the left’s opposition to fees logically results in us supporting subsidy of middle-class families.

Which is all very well, but it rather rests on the assumption that one should never spend any money on something purely because it is a matter of principle. What’s worse, at the moment that’s an easy assumption to defend because no-one has successfully established what the principle at stake is, exactly.

And so to the soundbite I’ve been struggling with, namely;

“higher education, meritocratic at the point of entry”

It’s an idea that often seems to be forgotten amongst all the debate about low socio-economic group access and internal markets, but I would hope that we as a party can at least agree that the mechanics of financing the higher education system should not obstruct the fundamental aim of that system, namely to identify and train the most able people in the country.

I’ll freely admit that this criterion doesn’t forbid fees, but it does place stringent conditions on how they can be assessed and charged and focuses on the requirement to consider fees holistically with maintenance requirements. This second point is vital to recognise; the current system does contravene the meritocracy criteria because, with the support loan limit as laughably inadequate as it is, many low-income students must rely on bursaries to meet their basic needs and as such bursaries are variable in the magnitude and availability, there is an additional market pressure on applicants choices.

So for now, let me just put the question out there; beyond the possible effects of a fees system on the social makeup of the university population, is there a deeper principle involved that requires us to get money out of the way of admission?

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