This post is to throw my wholehearted support behind Nick Clegg and the ministerial team with regards to Higher Education policy. I write this post as a Liberal Democrat and a student. A student that by the way receives the maximum financial support from the Government for fees and maintenance loans, so I guess that makes me exactly the sort of student that will be deterred from University following these changes (or not, as I will seek to explain..). As an added point to consider, what exactly do I gain as a rank-and-file member writing a blog post in support of Nick Clegg? He does not know who I am, I’m more likely to attract abuse than praise for this post – there is no good reason for me to be tribal on this matter. I am writing this because it is what I believe.
The last few weeks have seen what should have been a difficult, complex and thorough debate transformed into a confused, oversimplified and angry mess. There are many valid points to be made for and against the proposals put forward by the Coalition; unfortunately I feel these points from both sides have been cast into the margins.
First lets deal with that pledge and that clear flagship policy of the Liberal Democrats that was to phase out Tuition Fees altogether within six years. How can I, how can the party, possibly consider going directly against this after entering government? The answer is not because we are blinded by power. Firstly, you do not get into politics and join the Liberal Democrats if power in itself is all you are interested in and secondly, what good is ‘power’ if it is not to implement your own beliefs? Which leads me onto my second point - it is also not because we are powerless. Quite the contrary, this Coalition Government is all about a tension of power pulling in different directions and attempting to settle things by compromise, I will explain how I think this policy is a compromise later.
The inescapable truth upon entering the Coalition was that the pledges we made and the manifesto policy we proposed became wholly undeliverable. You may well disagree with the economic arguments about the severity of the deficit meaning that the policy was financially unworkable. However, what has to be accepted is that being one-fifth of a Government of which the other four-fifths were considering the polar opposite to our policy means that it was politically impossible to deliver.
The issue of Higher Education funding needed tackling. The legacy left by Labour was one that needed to be rectified – they recognised this themselves by commissioning the Browne Report. So it was simply not a responsible option to leave things as they were, either by mutual agreement between the coalition partners or by the Liberal Democrats rebelling against anything short of their pledge. The pledge and the manifesto policy, I hope I have explained, was impossible to deliver and it would be irresponsible to leave the issue alone altogether – Governments have to act.
But the party had the right to abstain in the coalition agreement – why didn’t they just abstain? Well I always thought that actually this was a bit of an insidious option. If we abstained from start to finish, that is from the formulation of the policy to the vote, then we would have had a wholly Conservative proposal going to the vote tomorrow. Not only do I fear that a Higher Education policy that is 100% Tory would be wrong, but the abstention would be useless because with a Liberal Democrat abstention the Tories can still beat the opposition. So all that is saved would be the face of the party, condemning the next generation of students to a policy perhaps more unfair than the one we inherited – that, in my opinion, is cowardly and unfair.
So the only responsible, fair and credible option is to engage. Put aside our vast differences on the matter and work together to reach a workable and mutually agreeable fairer policy than that we inherited from Labour. The Browne Report of course laid the foundations. This was an independent research project that had examined the issue for a considerable length of time and it would have been equally wrong to dismiss out of hand his recommendations as it would have been to swallow them whole. Neither of those two things happened. Remember there was a considerable campaign to ‘Keep the cap’ upon the release of the report following its recommendation to effectively create a free-market for fees – a cap has been kept.
The policy itself, in my opinion, is fairer than that which we inherited. Part-time students, often the most vulnerable group of students, will now be supported. The threshold of which you have to start repaying your fees has been raised from the lowly £15k to much more like the national average of £21k. The poorest students will be considerably better off, with some even receiving their first year’s tuition for free. Monthly repayments will be considerably lower than before, meaning greater disposable income throughout the graduate’s lifetime. Let’s not pretend that this “debt” is anything like a debt from a bank loan or credit card. No bailiffs will be knocking on the door, no extortionate rates of interest will be charged. The reality is that the amount you pay off is relative to the amount you earn and it is deducted straight from your monthly wage packet (just like a, err, tax).
I admit that the spectre of fees can psychologically deter someone from attending University. It deterred me at first, and to be perfectly honest the spectre of £3k a year or £9k a year would have been equally frightening – I can’t afford either I would have thought. But once the system of repayment was helpfully explained to me by my Sixth Form careers department, the spectre disappeared. I could afford to go because graduates pay fees, not students.
I do not want to go on too much about the policy itself, other than reiterate that it is fairer than the one we inherited from Labour. This, in my opinion, was the maximum achievable under the circumstances. This I believe is probably the thinking of the ministerial team.
I welcome reasoned objections to the policy. What I reject is the demonisation of Nick Clegg and my party. The decision, as I have tried to explain, has been made in good faith and because it is what the ministerial team believes is the fairest, deliverable deal for students and universities. Wrong? Maybe. Sell outs? Certainly not.