Given that the coalition has been successful on many issues, it is baffling that they have made such an almighty mess of the tuition fees issue. It is this issue that has for me been a tipping point. It is indicative of a wider malaise.
Have the LibDems betrayed their voters? In my opinion, the answer is unequivocally 'yes'. The LibDem party conference – as the policy-making forum of the party – resolved to work towards the abolition of tuition fees by the end of the next parliament. Following the party conference, Nick Clegg said: 'Our message to students is clear: we remain the only party that believes fees are unfair, and the only party with a plan to get rid of them for good.' The party manifesto on which the general election was fought went on to say this:
We will [s]crap unfair university tuition fees for all students taking their first degree, including those studying part-time, saving them over £10,000 each. We have a financially responsible plan to phase fees out over six years, so that the change is affordable even in these difficult economic times, and without cutting university income. We will immediately scrap fees for final year students.The phrase 'affordable even in these difficult economic times' is critical. We were told before the election that Vince Cable was the one man who understood the economic crisis; nevertheless despite the recession it was possible to make a manifesto commitment to abolish fees. We cannot now say that on entering government that the situation was so much worse than we had realised that it was necessary to move from a position of abolishing fees to one where we supported their being tripled. Unless Vince didn’t understand the recession after all …
And then of course there was the pledge. We decided – for better or worse – to take this one commitment from the manifesto and make it the subject of a specific pledge, 'to vote against any increase in fees in the next Parliament and to pressure the government to introduce a fairer alternative’. We did not have to make this the subject of a specific pledge, but we did so. LibDem candidates did not have to be photographed in their droves signing the pledge, but they did so. And on the back of that pledge, university students – first-time voters all – flocked to the LibDem banner, delivering several key marginals in the general election. There is no doubt that – whether the policy is right or wrong – the electorate had an unequivocal expectation and a right to expect us to oppose tuition fees – certainly to oppose any increase in tuition fees. The fact that a Tory Government would have raised fees in any case (and would probably have adopted Browne's proposal to remove the cap altogether) is irrelevant: the electorate trusted us to do the right thing and we let them down.
Of course, this is a coalition – and not a LibDem Government – and in coalitions compromises must be made. You make a series of manifesto commitments, and when a coalition is formed, you ‘trade’ some commitments in return for safeguarding those that are precious to you, to your party, and to its voters. Voting reform is one such ‘line in the sand’ issue (though since the election Nick Clegg has, incredibly, suggested that this is not necessarily so); tuition fees – the one policy that was made the subject of a pledge – was surely another. If that is not so, then which of our promises is inviolable? Of what can we say ‘enough, no more’?
What is worse – far worse – is that LibDem ministers have been the architects of this policy. They could have stood aside on the issue and abstained – better still they could have opposed the changes, as they had campaigned to do. Instead, they championed the change – Clegg, Cable and Alexander were forever seen before the cameras, while Cameroon and Osborne hid in the shadows. What is worse: that they now believe in this policy having been so against it before the election; or that they are misguided Tory ‘stooges’? I don’t know. The ‘revolt’ in the party was half-hearted and there has been no move since the vote to hold the party leadership to account, to get a firm undertaking on those other ‘line in the sand’ issues. When the electorate asks us ‘How can we believe any promise you make when you have broken this promise’, what are we to reply?
Looking at the proposal in policy terms, can a case for a rise be made out? Was it the only alternative? Can we justify letting down the electorate so badly? I don’t think so.
It is true that tuition fees were introduced by the last Labour administration, and that the present Opposition is confused about what it would do if in government. And it is undoubtedly true that the NUS's proposals on the face of it seem little different to what is being proposed by the coalition – certainly in terms of landing graduates with a lifetime of debt. But if we are to measure ourselves against those benchmarks, then we are indeed setting our sights very low.
The LibDem leadership has backed the measures as being more progressive and fairer than the current system, including as they do ending the discrimination against part-time students; making sure that graduates do not start repayments until they are earning a suitable wage at a higher level than they do now; and ensuring that the lowest earning graduates will pay back less overall than they do currently. Elements of what is being proposed are undoubtedly fairer than what is currently in place.
But by introducing fees at all, you immediately put in place obstacles to opportunity: those who go to university will in the first place be chosen (whether by self-selection or by the universities) by their ability to pay and not by their ability to learn. A young person contemplating university will not know in advance whether they will be able to afford the cost in 10 or 20 years’ time. This must operate as a disincentive.
There is an alternative – the one that is current LibDem policy. The fact is if higher education is free at the point of source (paid for by general taxation, or by an increase in corporation tax on larger companies, or a levy on bankers’ bonuses), then everyone has an equal opportunity to take advantage of that education: what could be fairer? And if, as a result of a university education, a graduate gets a better paid job, they will spend their entire working life paying higher income tax and thereby paying back the cost of their education – and contributing a greater proportion than lower paid non-graduates to the cost of educating future generations. How is that not progressive? When it came to making the case for the Coalition policy, that it was a fairer system than that currently in place, none of the LibDem ministers I heard addressed the question whether current LibDem policy was fairer. What the Coalition is asking you now to accept is that graduates should pay twice over – directly by paying back their tuition fees and indirectly by paying higher taxes.
Those who support the rise (particularly those on the Tory Right – and perhaps the fact that they are being so quiet on this issue should set alarm bells ringing) believe there should be a free market in everything, including education. They believe that this move 'empowers' the students/consumers – that universities/suppliers will be forced to become more answerable if the ‘consumer’ is given greater choice. Of course, this does nothing of the sort because – judging on the experience of last year – the demand for courses far outstrips their supply – the consumer is therefore burdened with greater debt without being given any more 'buying power'. There is no marketplace in education where the consumer is king: as we saw when our transport network and public utilities were privatised, we are replacing a state monopoly with a modicum of regulation with a private monopoly where – in the absence of real choice – there is no regulation.
Raising the threshold for when the debt becomes repayable by £6k but the debt by £20k will only serve to burden families with debt for the entire time they are raising their children. Their children will be constrained in their own university hopes by their parent's loan debts. Graduates may well be paying off their loans when they are grandparents. At the same time as being saddled with increased debt, the quality of education will steadily fall year on year as the cost of 'voting with our feet' or 'competition' bites. People will not go to university and aspire to the best course but the cheapest, most likely out of necessity.
A whole generation of students are likely to move abroad rather than saddle themselves with huge debts – to the United States where fees are a third of the current cost in England, and to English-language courses in Germany, Holland and Scandinavia – where fees are a fraction of what they are here. In France, graduates are paid a salary – the future value of well-educated graduates to the well-being of the entire nation is seen as worth the investment. And once our undergraduates are gone, many will not return – a lost generation of research, innovation, wealth generation, revenue creation. The country will be the poorer.
By withdrawing funding for higher education – 80% cuts while those in other areas amount to on average 10% - the government will be abrogating any right it has to a say in the future direction of higher education. It will be abandoning its responsibility for ensuring that the UK has a workforce trained in the way that the country requires.
And aside from the damage in education terms, there will be other knock-on effects for our economy. For example, graduates burdened with loans will have less to spend on consumer goods, thereby damaging our manufacturing base. They will put off taking on a mortgage and will ‘sit tight’ rather than enter the housing market – thereby damaging the UK building industry for generations and driving down house prices. Overall, national revenues will decrease and spending will be constrained – none of which is good for the long-term wealth of the UK. All the evidence suggests that how much a government spends on higher education is directly related to the wealth of the country – wealth from which everyone benefits.
And what will the country gain by this ideologically-driven move effectively to privatise higher education? The loans students are required to take out will be tripled, and students given longer to repay the loan: that means the Government – the lender – will have to take on more borrowing, and more expensive borrowing, to service those loans. This move could actually end up costing more than it will save.
So is this simply the result of the see-saw nature of coalition government – or is there something more significant – more sinister – at work? It is difficult to escape the conclusion that Nick Clegg has imposed a ‘the state is the problem’ mentality on the party. More and more we are hearing – from our leadership and elements within the Tory party – that the traditions we hold dear have much in common with the Tory mantra of the ‘Big Society’ – rolling back the state, devolving power to the lowest possible level, empowering the individual. But while for the Tories this has echoes of ‘there is no such thing as society’ (the ‘creative chaos’ of individual decision-making), that only the strongest deserve to thrive and that the market will provide (hence their reluctance to get tough with the banks and their enthusiasm for deep public sector cuts – a belief that the private sector will do the job so much better, and where it does not do so volunteers will step in to fill the gap), I had thought that for the LibDems there was a belief that this freedom from state control would be tempered by ensuring that the most vulnerable in society would be protected at all costs – a spirit of mutualism, community and solidarity.
But looking just at the headlines from the week following the tuition fees and EMA fiasco gives the lie to this assumption. On Monday, we learned that the pupil premium will not be made up of new funding, but a reallocation of existing resources. On Tuesday, we are told that the poorest councils will suffer cuts of up to 8.9% while some of the richest will get an increase; on Wednesday, we hear that more than 900 primary schools could be closed as they fail to reach ‘standards’ regardless of how good a job they are doing elsewhere in providing an all-round education; on Thursday, 100,000 public sector job losses are forecast and another 100,00 in the private sector (that is meant to absorb those public sector losses); and on Friday, the IFS estimated an extra 400,000 people living in absolute poverty in 2012–3: 200,000 children and 200,000 working age adults (one in five 18–24 year olds is already without work). Recent announcements relating to the health service (eg ‘empowering’ already overworked doctors to make purchasing decisions – a power they will be forced to delegate to the private sector) support the proposition that the Coalition Government believes that all aspects of our lives can be made the subject of market forces – and an unjustifiable belief that equality will inevitably follow in its wake.
The Tories are using the recession to unleash a radical overhaul of the state – zealously cutting with no real idea of what will grow in its place – an experiment in social engineering. They are ideologically committed to this programme, and would have implemented it regardless of the recession – the recession has provided them with a convenient smokescreen. We have allowed ourselves to be swept up in their excitement, with little thought being given to those who will be left behind. We are thrown a few crumbs of comfort – but these have been offered not as considered policies but as an after-thought (EMAs would be replaced by a mysterious ‘something’ more effective). Cut first, ask questions after.
I remain of the view that there are some things that only the state can provide effectively, and that those things should be ring-fenced and paid for regardless: free education, a free health service, a pension that gives the elderly dignity, a robust public housing sector so that every young person has a decent start in life – the list goes on. Are these affordable? Certainly when one considers that income tax revenue is at an all-time low and large companies continue to make mouth-watering profits (just look at the profits announced by the once publicly-owned utility companies, while fuel prices are hiked during the most severe winter on record). We can afford it: it just depends where our priorities lie.
And what of voting reform? The country has seen how coalition government works – and they don’t like it. They don’t like the fact that an unequivocal promise that was a defining issue for many voters can be traded in the back rooms and corridors of Whitehall. They feel disenfranchised. If voting reform promises more of the same, the electorate will decisively vote it down in May.
This week we have had the unedifying sight of Vince Cable boasting that he had so much power that he could ‘bring the government down’ by walking out of the coalition. Well, he has had plenty of opportunities. Not only when the party abandoned its promise to scrap tuition fees in favour of voting through a crippling rise in fees. How about when the party overcame its opposition to nuclear power in October to approve the construction of eight new nuclear power stations? How about when the party compromised on proportional representation to campaign for a watered-down version of electoral reform, in the form of the alternative vote? When Green party MP Caroline Lucas sponsored an amendment, calling for true proportional reform to be included on the ballot paper for the referendum in May, Lib Dem MPs voted unanimously against it. This is yet another example of Lib Dems talking the talk, but not walking the walk. While those in government can plead the need for collective responsibility in these troubled economic times, those on the backbenches have a duty to speak out for Liberal values. They have conspicuously failed to do so. We hear that some are privately unhappy with what has been done in the name of their party – but how many have spoken out in public? How many have been prepared to vote against the government? When we look to David Davis to uphold liberal values, then we know something is seriously amiss.
I know many will share my concerns about some of the decisions that have been taken by the Coalition, and by the LibDem members of that coalition. Many will have been members of the party far longer than I have – and have seen the party – or its leadership – drift from its grassroots supporters – but have remained in the party to remind its leadership of the party’s proud radical tradition. And many will point out that – despite the difficult few weeks we have endured – we are as a party in a far better position than we have been for generations. You may well be right, and you are undoubtedly made of sterner stuff than I am – but I fear that the leadership are consciously taking us in a direction that will lead ultimately to the party’s demise (either at the ballot box or in the smoke-filled rooms of parliament); and in the meantime, I have no convincing argument for why the electorate should continue to support us. Nothing would please me more than to be proved completely wrong.