The Students are Revolting

Of course there’s always the argument that high fees will discourage talented poor students from applying to university; but that argument is a non-starter because Conservative politicians don’t care about poor people – that is, after all, why they became Conservative politicians.

No, any successful arguments here have to concern themselves with the only thing Conservative politicians actually do care about:


Raising student fees will, we are told, “save money”.

This, of course, is bollocks. No money will be saved, the money required will, ceteris paribus, be exactly the same. The only real questions are about who should pay this money.

In the past, the tax-payer paid.

Now students pay for their own education by borrowing money and paying it back later – when they become tax-payers – and, in future, we may move to a “graduate tax” where students pay for their own education - by borrowing money and paying it back later when they become tax-payers - but they pay the money back through the tax system.

Now, one of the things about PAYE tax is that everyone in the country is essentially means-tested each year to make sure they are paying the right amount of tax. Low earners pay less tax. High earners pay more. We used to use some of this money for paying student fees.

Instead we now means-test students before they apply to university to see if they are entitled to a loan, then we means-test them in a more detailed fashion to see how much of a loan and what types of loan, they are entitled to. Once they leave University and get a job we means-test them regularly to see if their income has passed the required threshold for starting to pay the money back and then we calculate – on an on-going basis- how much they have paid, how much interest is due, whether they are still earning enough to continue paying back, how much they still need to pay, and what size the instalments should be.

All this alongside the normal means-testing conducted by the Inland Revenue on all its PAYE “customers” (as I believe we are known these days) each year (though perhaps there is some pooling of information).

I think it goes without saying that the infrastructure required to make all these calculations and to police the loans system is enormously expensive. Far from saving money, this system devours money as Eric Pickles devours pies.

“But making the tax-payer pay for other people’s education isn’t fair” bleat the Conservative politicians and newspapers - for whom fairness is and always has been the very scourge of the earth. Even the esteemed @DAaronovitch (for whom I have a lot of admiration and who does care about social justice) has presented versions of this argument.

The only people I can see who were “unfairly” treated by the system we had before student loans were high earners who did not go to university. They, though their higher taxes, were paying for education from which they themselves never benefited.

Except, that they did benefit. They benefited because everyone benefits from a highly educated workforce; and they benefited because they spent three years earning money when their peers were living in relative poverty in order to acquire an education.

So we need to save money and rescue the Liberal Democrats from the dreadful bind they now find themselves in.


Abolish student loans and pay all university fees by raising income tax for the better off.

Let's just fucking do it!


Template letter to MP regarding the #TwitterJokeTrial

I have sent an email based on the template below to my local MP using http://www.writetothem.com I hope as many people as possible will do the same.

In spite of what I say in this letter, I strongly suspect (though I pretend no legal expertise) that the real problem is not the 2003 Communications Act itself, but the perverse interpretation of that Act by the CPS and the lower courts. It will, however, take a huge amount of time and money to get this matter before a high-court judge. In the meantime I think we should press our MPs to clarify the law to prevent it being mis-used in this way.

NB It is always better if you write to your MP using your own words rather than someone else’s, but please all feel free to use whatever you like from the example I provide below - I assert no copyright!

Please be polite and avoid making personal attacks on any of individuals involved!

Dear Ms/Mr/Dr MP

I write to express my grave concern at certain provisions of the Communications Act 2003.

As you may be aware, a trainee accountant called Paul Chambers was successfully prosecuted in May 2010 for “sending a menacing message”. His conviction was upheld at appeal; the High Court Judges at his most recent appeal were unable to agree on their interpretation of the law; and Mr Chambers faces a further appeal in the High Court at the end of June this year (2012).

Paul Chambers’s “crime” was to vent his exasperation at a travel delay by making a (perhaps somewhat ill-judged and tasteless) joke about blowing up a local airport on the “microblogging” site known as “Twitter” – much as our former Poet Laureate Sir John Betjeman vented his exasperation with modern architecture and town-planning by calling for the bombing of Slough.

What is worrying about the law here is that:

  1. there was clearly never any intention by the author of the offending joke to menace anyone;

  2. no message was ever sent to the airport or anyone connected with that airport; and

  3. nobody who read the joke – Paul Chambers’s “followers” on Twitter (at whom the joke was directed), the staff at the airport who found the “tweet” (by searching on the internet for mentions of their airport), or the police (to whom the tweet was passed on) – felt menaced.

If Mr Chambers really had sent a menacing message to an airport designed to make them fear he intended violence he would have been, quite rightly, charged under the Criminal Law Act 1977.

Instead, the CPS decided to prosecute using the 2003 Communications Act and the court decided that a tweet can be a menacing message under Clause 127 of that Act regardless of whether the person writing the tweet intended menace or anyone actually reading it felt menaced.

This is absurd.

There are, literally, trillions of passages of text on social networking sites and on the internet in general that could, if taken completely out of context, conceivably be found menacing by somebody somewhere. It seems that the 2003 Communications Act puts anyone who publishes anything on the internet at risk of criminal prosecution if any of his or her words (stripped of their original setting) could be misinterpreted as threatening in some fashion.

This does not only impact private individuals like Paul Chambers, commercial users of the internet are obviously impacted too. If we are all forced, when publishing things on the internet, to avoid any form of hyperbole or metaphor or figure of speech that could, if taken literally in some imaginary context, imply “menace”, we are clearly an intolerable situation.

The 2003 Communications Act obviously needs to be amended as soon as possible. I hope you and your colleagues in parliament will give this matter your urgent attention.

Yours sincerely