9 December 2010

The tuition fee fall out...

I'll leave it to others to mull over the riots, the result and the Royals, but what has been clear from the tuition fee debate over the last few months is the big Lib Dem fall out has to end.

I understand both sides of the debate and can see completely why those Lib Dems who chose to vote no did so. I also complete understand the argument put forward by Cable and Clegg that their revision of the Browne proposals (Browne+) are demonstrably better than the original and the current regime. But what I cannot understand is why those Lib Dem opponents of the proposals chose to argue their case in a way that gave cover for the NUS and Labour.

This argument should never have been about trust - even though it is easy to make a case for that. The Lib Dems have been entirely consistent about the benefits of further and higher education and making access as easy as possible - particularly for bright kids from poorer backgrounds. They were consistent in 1998 when they opposed Labour's introduction of fees in the first place and in 2004 when they opposed Labour's introduction of top up fees as they were when they realised earlier this year the economic situation meant that abolition would have to be delayed. And that clear principle of making it easy for bright kids from poorer backgrounds to get a good education shines through Vince Cable's changes to the original Browne scheme.

But there is a big difference between the detailed expression of policy and the principles and values that lie behind it. Just as some Lib Dems were wedded to the 1997 tactical position of raising taxes to pay for better public services way beyond its economic usefulness and making it some sort of totem of Social Liberalism, there seems to be vocal minority who have been wedded to no tuition fees as a totem of principle rather than a policy for a particular time.

Keynes said when the facts change I change my mind. The detail of policy is simply an expression of how we best put our principles and values into action. Our principle is not to oppose tuition fees per se, but to widen access to further and higher education because it benefits everyone and is the biggest driver to ending poverty. The tuition fees pledge was an expression of that goal. That has not changed and we can point to how our principles have been applied consistently to the new reality.

Unfortunately the opponents of Browne+ within the party have failed to make that distinction and done the Labour party's dirty work by focussing on the promise not the rationale for making it.

But I'm confident both sides now understand the necessity of coming together and starting to argue a case, in a language that all can understand. In the end it's our values that matter - not the policies. And it's time to start framing the debate in those terms - not Labour's (whose record on student finance is a mixture of hypocrisy, opportunism and craven fawning to the commercial interests of the biggest and richest universities in the land).


  1. "Labour's record on student finance is a mixture of hypocrisy, opportunism and craven fawning to the commercial interests of the biggest and richest universities in the land"

    Surely the Lib Dems' record on student finance is also a mixture of hypocrisy, opportunism and craven fawning?

    There is no 'new reality'. It's the same old reality. The Lib Dems just have a shiny new reason to wear new reality-resistant sunglasses.

    Meet the new politics, same as the old politics.

  2. It would be nice to debate with a human being rather than someone hiding behind anonimity. But I'm sorry I don't agree there is no new reality - a government of two parties (and all their factions) rather than a single party (and all it's factions) is de facto new ground and will inevitably mean a more open and discursive decision making process.

    What did the public know about the debate when 70 odd Labour MPs rebelled over the introduction of top up tuition fees in 2005? Government is about a whole series of compromises - but with a coalition they are more out in the open, as we shall see over the next four years.

  3. Hi Dan,

    (FYI, I'm not anonymous above)

    I have two questions for you - the first is that you say that there is a new reality, one of a government of two parties. How is that different to the old reality, when members of both these parties break personally signed pledges?

    And secondly, the idea that this will widen access is a bit laughable really. I managed to get through university before the wrecking ball of successive fee rises hit, but those 2-3 years behind me have had their futures stripped from them by this government.

  4. Thanks Steve - of course I think there is a difference between a single party government and a coalition. A coalition involves both sides compromising (unless they stood on the exact same platform - which would be a bit daft), so the Lib Dems will have to bite their lips on certain issues as will the Tories - as I think we are seeing on things like penal reform and the recent announcement on sentencing policy for knife crimes.

    The point about the Cable proposals are that they are more progressive than the current regime (even according to the IFS). Typical monthly repayments of a £29K tuition debt under new figures show how progressive they are:

    £22K £7.50
    £25K £30
    £35K £105
    £50K £217.50

    In my view the biggest improvement is abolishing up front fees for part time students - who are more likely to be from poorer backgrounds and are working their way through college or have young kids or other dependents. For them the prospect of now paying nothing up front must be a an incentive and will encourage more lifelong learning.