Liberal Democrat Leader and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg has written to National Union of Students president Aaron Porter to explain the Government's higher education funding proposals and respond to his 'Right to Recall' campaign.
The full text of the letter is below:
Thank you for writing to me about your ‘Right to Recall’ campaign.
The idea of a right to recall was something I proposed when I first became leader of the Liberal Democrats and I am proud that it is now part of the Coalition Agreement. However my proposal was for it to apply to MPs who were found guilty of serious wrongdoing by the parliamentary authorities. My intention has always been that it should be for people found to be breaching parliamentary rules, the example I often used was that of Derek Conway.
While the Liberal Democrats have not been able to keep their pledge on tuition fees I believe we have played an important role in proposing a new system that is in line with our fair, progressive values.
That fairness includes ending the discrimination against part-time students; making sure that graduates do not start repayments until they are earning a suitable wage at a higher level than they do now; and ensuring that the lowest earning graduates will pay back less overall than they do currently.
For example, a nurse with a starting salary of £21,000 increasing to £27,000 in real terms over 20 years would pay an average of £7 a month over 30 years. Under the current system, they would be paying back at least £45 a month immediately.
I know your preferred option is for a Graduate Tax. As you know, that is something we also looked at but rejected, partly because we felt it was actually more unfair. Under a Graduate Tax people on below-average incomes would end up paying more than they would under our proposals.
If we are agreed that people should only start repaying after they graduate and that those repayments should be linked to the ability to pay then the important question is which system offers the fairest method of repayment. I firmly believe that a Graduate Contribution Scheme is fairer and more progressive than Graduate Tax.
I understand and respect the fact that you will continue to argue the case for your own preferred system and that debate is one that will continue after a new funding system is introduced. Equally I understand that part of that campaign will involve the NUS trying to pressure the Liberal Democrats.
However, I also believe that all of us involved in this debate have a greater responsibility to ensure that we do not let our genuinely held disagreements over policy mean that we sabotage an aim that we all share – to encourage people from poorer backgrounds to go to university.
Like me I am sure you have regularly spoken to people who believe that the new proposals will mean them having to pay before they go to university or say that they cannot afford the fees. As you know, there is no upfront charge and the repayments only apply to graduates who earn over £21,000. If the proposals are passed by Parliament I believe it is crucial that all of us are able to ensure that people know the true picture.
There is one thing in this debate that I believe unites all of us – both parties in the coalition; your fellow members in the Labour Party; the NUS and people throughout the country who care about higher education – and that is that the opportunity to go to university is one that everyone should feel they have. It would be a tragedy if we inadvertently allowed our debate about the methods to damage our shared goal.
I will be in touch to arrange a meeting with you to discuss this. I do not expect to change your current position, nor am I trying to stop you continuing to campaign for what you believe in, even after Parliament votes on these proposals. But I do believe that the nature of that debate, and the language we use, is important if it is not to have consequences that none of us want.