We have previously questioned whether increased university tuition fees are fair and noted that Muslim warnings against tuition fee interest charges present a challenge to Christians. It was therefore pleasing to hear the contributions of some of the bishops to the Lords debate on the Higher Education Regulations:
The Lord Bishop of Lincoln: It is clear that there are no doubt many ways by which higher education can be funded-direct funding, grants, loans, public/private partnerships and so on-and the Government are largely following the recommendations of the review of the noble Lord, Lord Browne. They have opted for the principle of loans, as promoted by the previous Government. As we have heard, the task of the noble Lord, Lord Browne, was to trim the burgeoning financial commitment of central government to higher education while at the same time maintaining and improving current levels of participation in higher education across all socioeconomic groups, including those from the most deprived backgrounds. It remains to be seen whether the trick can be done using the means now before us.
Will the public purse be relieved of higher education costs? Only if loans are repaid and the recent financial crisis teaches us that policies predicated on debt and its repayment are speculative to say the least. As for maintaining and improving participation in higher education, it is surely counterintuitive to believe that students will commit to this size of future debt in anticipation of a benefit which is by no means guaranteed. Surely, even if they are prepared to so commit, we must ask whether the normalising of debt in this way is morally defensible or socially sustainable.
The Lord Bishop of Chichester: By one of those interesting quirks of history, it is almost exactly 150 years to the day-it is actually tomorrow, 15 December-that Palmerston wrote to the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gladstone, warning him in relation to economic policies that the debt of citizens was by no means the same thing as the debt of states. That was a remarkably prescient comment.
What we have here is, at least in part, an attempt to deal with national debt by transferring it to individuals. The noble Lord, Lord Giddens, talked about something corrosive. The socially corrosive effects of this measure go far beyond the particular educational instincts that are at its heart. My point is therefore not really about education or the impact of this measure upon our higher education institutions, but about the potentially socially corrosive effect of high levels of individual debt in relation to national debt, which is a different matter altogether.
As we have observed previously, debt is always a bad thing and can be equated with a form of slavery. With Wales and Scotland implementing policies to 'protect their own', will churches apply the lesson of Acts 4:32-35 and help fund their young people’s university education, either through grants or interest-free loans?