This evening, I held a public meeting on the Government's plans to reform the funding of higher education, allowing universities to charge higher tuition fees that students would initially pay via a government loan which they would have to start repaying once they were earning over £21,000 a year.
Over 60 people attended, mainly young people currently at school who would be affected by the changes and their parents. I was left in no doubt how unfair they feel it is that they are being asked to take on much higher debts to pay for the mistakes of the previous government and the greed of some bankers.
On the other side of the coin, I don't think many people in the room realised that because the Government is proposing to raise the amount of money you have to be earning before you start repaying your loans (from £15,000 to £21,000), graduates will be paying less per week than they do at present. In other words, they will have a larger debt, which it will take more time to pay off (indeed the Government projects that over half of graduates won't ever be asked to pay off all their loan), but in terms of their ability to afford a mortgage etc they will be paying less per month.
Although most people were opposed to increasing fees, there were elements of the policy that were popular eg providing young people with much more information to help them choose the right institution and the right course - how much contact time they would have and with who, what proportion of previous graduates have secured graduate-level jobs etc - and allowing new institutions to enter the market that might allow you to study for a degree from a good university closer to home and thereby get into less debt (eg Croydon College has recently started to offer some degrees from the University of Sussex).
I also got asked a number of detailed questions to which I didn't have the answer. I have written to David Willetts, the Minister responsible, and will be circulating the answers as soon as I have them. I am also hoping to make some of the points raised at the meeting in the debate on tuition fees that I understand is likely to take place on Tuesday evening.
Finally, can I thank everyone who attended the meeting and also those who were unable to come but have emailed me their views. When the Government announces something like increasing tuition fees that is bound to be unpopular, I think it is really important that MPs take the time to explain to their constituents why the Government is doing what it's doing and to listen to what their constituents think about it. I learned a lot from tonight's meeting and I am really grateful to those who gave up some of their time to come and tell me what they think - and to Coloma for allowing me to hire the room.