Let me propose a subject to be placed on the agenda at once .... a rebate. With Britain's contribution to the EU budget rising to £6.4 billion, and the country's finances so parlous that London babies are being buried in paupers' graves, we have no option but to raise this at EU level
On June 17, David Cameron will travel to Brussels for his first EU summit as prime minister. When the silence falls and the goggling interpreters prepare for the first words to be heard from a Tory prime minister in 13 years, he will be thinking – like all British PMs – of two audiences.
To his new amigos he will want to send out a powerful message that the UK is ready to lead in Europe and to ensure that the EU is a force for good. And to the millions of voters back home he will simultaneously want to signal that he will stick up for this country's interests and that he will not allow us to be ripped off by our friends and partners in Brussels.
Let me therefore propose one subject that needs to be placed on the agenda at once. I know such comparisons are not thought helpful these days, but it is the kind of thing that Margaret Thatcher would have fished out of her handbag in the first half hour. As we all know, the economic crisis is hitting young people hard. We have rising unemployment among 16- to 24-year-olds, and the shortage of jobs has driven huge numbers to apply for university – at the very moment when the Government is asking universities to accept deep cuts in funding.
We are warned that at least 100,000 British applicants will fail this year to get a place. Add those to the 46,000 who failed last year, and you have a lot of heartache. I am not one of those, by the way, who advocates savage cuts in the number of students or the closure of second-rate universities. The overwhelming evidence is still that graduates, on the whole, earn more than non-graduates. Whenever you find a pub bore arguing that kids these days would be better off skipping university and going straight into hod-carrying, just say: "Oh yeah, and what about your kids?" Who are these kids who would be better off missing uni and getting stuck in on building sites? Other people's kids, that's who.
Of course, not every graduate will get the job he or she thinks they "deserve" – and many of them frankly need to be more realistic. But higher education is still generally a liberating and enriching thing, and that is why we should sort out its finances.
Oxford's Chancellor, Chris Patten, has called for the cap on fees to be lifted, and that looks sensible, provided it can be done without disadvantaging students from poorer backgrounds. But then, what about the millions in the middle – those who are neither too rich to care nor too poor to qualify for help?
One of the reasons I passionately support our university system is that it is among the best in the world. London alone has more top-100 universities than any other city on earth, and we attract many of the brightest students on the planet.
The income from foreign students contributes more than £5 billion to British higher education. But when I say foreign students, I mean, of course, students from outside the EU – because EU students have the most incredible deal, and they know it.
This year British universities are educating 62,000 students from other EU countries, and applications for next year are up 36 per cent. They are flooding in from Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Italy, Sweden and elsewhere, and they are not only taking 5 per cent of the places, but they are also receiving colossal subsidies from the UK taxpayer. The subsidy for teaching is put at £4,000, and then they have the heavily subsidised £3,255 in loans to pay for the tuition fees, a loan that only becomes repayable once they have left university and reached a certain level of income.
There is only one answer. We need a rebate. With Britain's net contribution to the EU budget rising to an amazing £6.4 billion, and with the country's finances so parlous that London babies are being buried in paupers' graves, we have no option but to raise this at the EU level. When Dave has finished with the mellifluous banalities about partnership and the heart of Europe, he should attire himself in cerulean blue, and pearls, and a pineapple-coloured wig; and he should cry: "We are paying for your students – and we want our money back!"
And then he should hit the Brussels table with a heavy black handbag until they get the message.
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