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Heading up the new Independent Student Finance Taskforce

Heading up the new Independent Student Finance Taskforce

I’ve today agreed to take an (unpaid) role, heading up the Independent Taskforce on Student Finance Information. Its aim is to help ensure everyone understands exactly what they’re getting into – the good bits and the bad.  

The new taskforce (see Student Taskforce MSE news for info of who’s on it) is comprised of universities, the NUS, student money advisers and colleges. Together all are trying to ensure every student affected by the 2012 English student finance changes, understands the cost. Afterall, only then can they decide whether it’s worth it. (For now, see the student finance 2012 – 20 key facts guide).

Why I’m doing this

Many of you will have heard me say this line before – it’s something that angers me – and that as a nation we should hang our heads in shame about…

For 20 years we’ve educated our youth into debt when they go to university, but never about debt – that must change.

It’s one of the reasons I’ve been involved in lobbying hard to get compulsory financial education in schools. Back in January, at the launch of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Financial Education, I challenged over 200 MPs saying something like:

“If we treble tuition fees and we start charging some students commercial rates of interest and we let them go and take those loans out without understanding the debt they are getting into … we have done a disservice to an entire generation of our youth.” (watch the video)

And having said such a thing – how can I not act now to put my money where my mouth is?

And while I’m no fan of the changes, as I’ve written many times before (especially the interest rates and possible early redemption penalties), the truth is these changes are happening. And barring small clauses, that won’t change for at least the life of this parliament – so the sooner we have clear financial education on this out there, the better. 

If we don't do this, things will get much worse

If we don’t do this, things will get much worse

What scares me silly is that the sit-ins, government posturing and others involved in this are trying to subvert explanations of how the system actually works for their own political point scoring (see student loan arguments could tar a generation blog).

This runs the risk of mis-educating and scaring an entire generation unnecessarily. Of course, there are some things to be scared of, but not necessarily the ones we’re frightening people with.

Sadly, this isn’t the first time this has happened.

In 1998, when income contingent loans were first introduced (that’s the official name for paying proportionately through income tax, depending on income) it was a massive improvement on what was there before.

Unfortunately, it was introduced at the same time as tuition fees, which stole the headlines, painted everything negatively and meant many never truly understood the new repayment system and the benefits of it.

I have met many disadvantaged sixth formers over the years who were scared because they "can’t afford to go", whereas they wouldn’t have needed to pay anything till they left university and, only then, if they earned enough (and that won’t change).

Our society is in danger of making the same mistake again. The easy solution would be financial education in schools which would help this enormously (see more financial education info).

Yet in the short term we need to ensure that whatever the political decision, however palatable or unpalatable people find it, we don’t stop our youth from getting an education out of a misplaced fear.

This is a major concerted effort

Sadly, one early newspaper report got half a story on this and wrongly tried to present this as me selling student loans for the Government. 

That’s a load of baloney. This group is not a government group and it’s not government-funded, though Universities Minister David Willetts has agreed to co-operate and provide info when needed.  It’s formed by Universities UK, the National Association of Student Money Advisers, Guild HE, the NUS, and others – the deputy head of the group is Wes Streeting, NUS president 2008-10, and a leading campaigner against tuition fees.

It’s aim is about unbiased financial education over the costs of uni (note I talk costs, not fees – as many confuse the two).   

It’s worth noting the remit does not include promoting the value of university. While I strongly believe in education and the fact the ability to go should depend on merit not cash, I have argued against the taskforce promoting going to university.

Not because that’s a bad thing, but because until people understand the cost they can’t decide if it’s worth it – and mixing the two muddies the water. The structure of tuition fees is objective, the value of university is subjective. So it’s for the unis and colleges themselves to push the ‘you must go’ message.

What’s it actually going to do?

It’s early days yet – we’ve our first meeting on Monday of the operational group and that will be crucial – and are welcoming wider agencies to become supporting organisations (so if you represent a consumer group, education group, or organisation with an interest do get in touch).

As the budget’s very slim, the prime idea is to be a focus for best of breed communications to students (including mature students and part-timers), parents, pupils, teachers, academics and universities.

The aim is to gather together the clearest and best examples of apps, web tools, guides, speakers, ambassadors, literature, calculator and more. For example, I’m keen on getting a course designed to teach six formers and putting together an independent authoritative report together on the impact on the ability to get a mortgage and credit.