Focus on the middle
Up until now the focus of the argument about university finance has been on the poorest. That will soon change.
Lord Browne has clearly put a lot of energy into worrying about those from the poorest families and graduates on lower incomes. So much so, that he claims that one in five graduates will actually pay less under his system.
There'll be a more generous package of grants and loans to cover maintenance costs for those eligible and a significant rise in the level of salary a graduate can earn before paying back any of their student debt (from 15k to 21k).
Critics still say that his package is not progressive enough and could actually result in those earning, say, 30k to 45k paying back more than those on higher incomes. The reason for this is that, under Browne's proposals, graduates will pay 9% of their earnings each year, as they do now. However, unlike now, the debt owed will increase over time as Browne is proposing that graduates start to pay the real rate of interest on their debt. Thus, if Daddy can pay off your debt or if you can pay it back quickly because you're earning a lot, you will end up paying less for education than someone who does it steadily over the years - just like any other debt, in fact.
There are a couple of ways in which Vince Cable may be able to make the system more progressive than Browne proposes. He could:
• Limit the speed student debt can be paid back - in the way mortgages carry a penalty for early repayment
• Increase the rate of interest charged to the richest graduates so that they subsidise those who never re-pay their student debt. Browne proposes that graduates are charged a rate of interest equal to the cost to the government of borrowing money - that's RPI plus 2.2% (still lower than a cost of a loan from a bank). The government is looking at charging RPI + 3%
What I'm told he will not do is propose that the richest should pay back for extra years to subsidise the poor. The reason is practical as well as political. Officials have told ministers that if people are charged more than the cost of their education the system would be regarded as a tax within the national accounts - meaning that the government's liabilities would appear as part of the national debt. What's more, many Tories will not wear the idea of a doctor being overcharged to subsidise someone who did media studies and ends up in a poor-paying job.
Forgive the detail but this argument - rather like the one about the removal of child benefit - will take place at two levels - the principle and the painstaking detail.