It’s worth prefacing any comment on tuition fees with our fairness premium - as Nick Clegg outlined at conference he is very passionate about investing in children from all backgrounds from an early age and raising aspirations. This is a wider initiative than tuition fees: as you will have heard it includes the pupil premium; giving schools more freedom; investing in surestart centres and more. This is the first commitment our party is making in coalition to empowering young people so that they have the ambition to go to university and aim higher in the first place. It also represents in excess of £2.5 billion investment which would not have taken place under a Conservative government.
Moving on to the central issue of university fees. The short answer is that yes the leadership have abandoned the pledge to vote against a rise in fees, and there is no way to disguise this or justify it through the coalition agreement which some argue invalidates all earlier pledges. Many grass roots members (including our local councillors, Cheltenham MP Martin Horwood and many more) are much less than happy with the decision to abandon fees, and indeed party policy is still against a rise in fees, though unfortunately the government is not bound by this. It is up to the Deputy Prime Minister and our Ministers to fight for as much of our manifesto as they believe can be implemented, whilst sustaining a strong and effective government.
The situation which the leadership are caught between is a Labour party who introduced tuition fees and commissioned the Browne Review, and a Conservative party who want an uncapped free-market in fees. This is added to the fact that we entered government with a massive deficit and could not afford to invest in areas which we otherwise would have done, and most certainly would have prioritised with a majority Liberal Democrat government. Under these impossible circumstances Vince Cable argued initially for a graduate tax, but this is not a viable option to fund the universities the money they need now, and there’s an article on the BBC website this morning where a Professor argues we must either cut places (which will disproportionately hit state school students) or increase the contribution. So the most progressive but achievable approach is that which is being outlined, including: -
- No up-front fees for part-time students
- Bigger maintenance grants for the poorest students while at university
- £150 million National Scholarship Fund
- No repayments at all unless the graduate is earning £21,000 or more
- Richer graduates to pay a higher contribution than less well-off graduates
You may have heard that this policy is in fact fairer and more progressive than the alternative graduate tax which the NUS is arguing for in terms of enabling poorer students to be there in the first place - through scholarships, maintenance grants, deferred payments and so on. These proposals also mean the more you earn after you leave university, the more you pay, so those who go into voluntary work, internships, low paid jobs and so on will in fact pay much less than they do at the moment.
Admittedly the accompanying rise in fees to £6000 is not ideal, and universities which raise fees to £9000 or more (only permitted in “exceptional circumstances”) will be forced to invest excess profits in subsidising access for poorer students through a new regulatory body. However given the financial situation, the political make-up of the government and the funding universities need now this is the most progressive option available to us (including a cap at £9000 which Nick personally argued for, despite opposition from the conservatives). Further to this Nick Clegg, Vince Cable, Duncan Hames MP and many others in the party are regularly meeting with the NUS, students, think-tanks and so on to discuss what more we could be doing.
The overall message here is not a satisfying one - it looks certain that tuition fees will rise to £6000 a year, and this is a u-turn on the pledges every LibDem MP made. However these fees are not payable upfront, a much more progressive system is being implemented around them. The Liberal Democrat party stands apart from those in government and opposes any rise in fees, but with a strong economy and a majority Liberal Democrat government things would be vastly different. Perhaps in five years time if we have a fairer voting system we will hold more power in parliament (under AV we could have formed a coalition with Labour) and the economy will be in growth thanks to the difficult measures being taken now and this debate will be open to new arguments and options which are more satisfying to everyone within our party.
I hope this goes some way to restoring at some confidence - for so many of us at the grass roots we can only hope that we can weather this debate and continue to hold the Conservatives to account; make Britain a more Liberal place to live and get the economy under control so that the billions of pounds we currently spend on debt interest can instead be invested in education amongst other things.
And when Labour present a policy on which they are all united, and is a fairer and more progressive funding system which actually provides the funds universities need please will someone drop me an email?