Thursday, December 09, 2010

Why Lib Dem MPs should vote against increased tuition fees

Later today MPs will vote on whether or not to significantly increase tuition fees.

For me the lead up to this vote, and the implications for the party I have campaigned for for 23 years, are profoundly depressing.

I do accept that in a coalition we will have to make compromises. We have 57 MPs in a House Commons where the two dominant political parties both believe that individual students should make a substantial contribution to the cost of their first degree. I understand and accept that.

But what I find depressing is the way in which our party leaders, Nick Clegg and Vince Cable in particular, appear to be more willing to argue that black is white rather than stand up for our party's clear policy and the principles behind it.

Nick and Vince have tried to frame the debate as being about whether monthly repayments are lower or higher than under the current system. Clearly they are lower, at least for a few years, and clearly anyone earning between £15K and £21K will be better off.

And clearly the improvements for part-time students are welcome.

But surely the debate is about more than monthly repayments. (Apart from the fact that paying slightly lower monthly repayments, but for two or three times as many years, leaves you a lot worse off overall.)

Surely what is important to us, as Liberal Democrats, is that Higher Education is (or at least should be) an experience which transforms individuals and boosts their contribution to society.

Surely we should be arguing that yes, there are benefits to many graduates' earning potential, but the wider beneficial effects are far more important.

Surely, even if we believe that individuals will benefit, we believe that society benefits too? And that it is reasonable for society to pay at least some of the cost of each individual's higher education.

I wanted to hear our leaders arguing this case. A case which has won the day repeatedly at party conferences, in policy committees, and in manifesto negotiations. A case which our leaders argued during the election campaign. A case which is based on a Liberal view of the broader value of education.

Sadly this hasn't happened.

Sadly our leaders appear to be so bought in to making the coalition work that they see arguing the detail, and redefining concepts such as 'fairness' and 'progressive' rather than arguing the party's principles.

Sadly it appears that they would rather divert our attention onto what some email someone in NUS might have sent, than debate the real issues.

Our party leadership appear to have completely underestimated the importance of this issue to activists, members and a lot of the people who voted for us.

They appear to have ignored the express view of party conference and all the discussions that took place during the formulation of the manifesto for the last election.

And they appear to have forgotten a whole pile of things they said about trust in politics.

So it isn't the fact we have to compromise that annoys me, it is the way we got to this position.

They could have made this more of an issue in the coalition negotiations.

They could have chosen different priorities in departmental spending.

They could have 'received' the Browne Report rather than 'welcomed' it.

They could have taken a bit more time to look at all the alternatives, not rush to proposals based on the Browne report.

And our leaders could have made it clear that this is a compromise, but one that is difficult for the Lib Dems.

If they had done these things we would not be in the mess we are now.

Instead we have a set of proposals that mean that future graduates will pay the full (and possibly more than the full) cost of their degree while those of us whose education was paid for by other people's taxes pay nothing extra.

We have a scheme that means those who end up on above average but still modest incomes will pay back a much greater share of their earnings than those on high incomes, so that it is NOT progressive.

We have a scheme which will mean that most graduates will pay far more over their lifetime than under the current scheme.

And all this from a Government that claims that it is dealing with the deficit quickly so that future generations don't have to pay for the mistakes of this one.

So this is why Lib Dem MPs should vote against the Government's proposals.

They are unfair, they are not progressive, and they do not, therefore, pass the tests set down in the coalition agreement.

Our leadership has failed to argue the party's strong case for free education paid for by progressive taxation (so that those who do benefit financially would contribute more) and therefore have no right to expect our MPs to support them.

P.S.  Yes Labour have been rubbish on this too and NUS not much better, but this isn't about them.


Caron said...

I am going to watch that debate feeling profoundly sad, I think.

We've spent years arguing that you can trust us in Government because of what we achieved up here by securing the abolition of tuition fees and that's a part of why we're in the position we're in today - ie in Government.

I do think the Party has sleepwalked into this though and needs to take some responsibility for that. This got through the FE and the Special Conference. That was when we needed to make a bigger fuss about it. I wrote in May that tuition fees & any vote thereon was one of the times I'd need to be locked in a cupboard with a gin bottle. I was right.Although I don't think I have any gin in and it's too snowy to get any.

This whole thing hurts. A lot.

However, I think that there is no doubt that what has ultimately emerged is significantly better than we would have got if we'd let the Tories get on with it and certainly better than we would have had from Labour.

Anonymous said...

I'm worried because I know £27,000 of debt would have stopped me going to University. My parents, who left school at 16, wouldn't have seen it as a sensible investment. Especially studying History where there is no linked career at the end.

People in their 20s are already miles away from the housing market. And with a huge level of debt they will be further away still. Let alone what affect it will have on pension savings for that generation.

There are a lot of people who benefitted from free university education. Many of them in the House of Commons, because everyone in their late 30s onewards had that advantage. As they clearly see the benefit, there should be a way of making people who have already benefitted pay towards future astudents.

Tim Holyoake said...


Very well put. Your post mirrors my feelings as a member of the SDP and then the Liberal Democrats since the mid 1980's.


Liberal Neil said...

Caron - I agree that 'the party' shared some of the blame, particularly the decision not to allow more substantive amendments about Tuition Fees to be debated at the Special Conference.

Jane - I suspect I come from a similar background to you. I had the priviledge of others paying for my higher education and feel that it is completely wrong that MPs of my generation, who enjoyed the same priviledge, are willing to put such a large burden onto future graduates.

Tim - thanks.

David Fleming said...

My concern is not just what this has done to party policy, but what it has done for party "brand".

The Lib dems have enjoyed the reputation as being ... well ... nicer and more principled than the other parties. We have been the honest brokers in the middle, and our leader could put out a party election broadcast of himself walking down a street littered with the broken promises of other parties.

Well, those days are behind us now. When I knock on doors (if I do in the future) people will look at my yellow rosette and think "liars". We will be seen as the party who would sell their own grandmothers and say anything for a vote.

That is one legacy of last night's vote, and it goes far beyond the one issue.

Accepted, many low-earning graduates will not pay back the £30K, but that does not mean they will not be carrying that as a paper debt for 30 years. What happens when they want to get a mortgage or obtain credit? Just because you do not repay it does not mean you do not own it.

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In my opinion the tuitions are not so good for students as it increases the burden of parents because of high fees, become competitive tool for the parents and force them to compare their children with others, cause tremendous pressure to students leading to social problems, and lack the self learning skill as well. Increasing the fee will no doubt create more pressure on the parents and it is not a good thing.