There is little doubt that it has been a difficult week for Liberal Democrats; our Parliamentary party faced the choice between backing a rise in university tuition fees that the majority of Lib Dem voters and members do not support, and causing a potentially damaging split within the Coalition. The decision to raise fees has been protested – vociferously, at times violently – and the Lib Dems’ role in this policy has been subject to much Parliamentary and media scrutiny, without much of a real debate over the merits or otherwise of the proposed policy itself.
Here, we bring you some contributions to the debate over higher education policy made by former Lib Dem MP and senior Social Liberal Forum Council member Dr. Evan Harris.
If I were still a Liberal Democrat MP I would vote against the proposed rise in tuition fees.
The coalition deal does mean accepting compromises and supporting an overall programme, including things you like as well as things you don’t. But this policy is different, for several reasons…
Evan then dissects the policy in detail, dealing first with its strengths and positive aspects: First the good aspects of the policy
1) The repayment system is fairer than the current one and Lord Browne’s recommendations.
The Institute for Fiscal Studies yesterday finally produced a full judgement of the proposals. It really does merit study by those commenting on them. Earlier IFS papers had been wrong because they were based on certain incorrect assumptions and had been misinterpreted by the National Union of Students and others, forcing the institute to announce that there would be a revised version . In any event, the government announced changes.
The report confirms that the government’s proposal is more progressive (fairer) than both the existing system introduced by Labour and what was recommended by Browne, who was asked by Labour and the Conservatives to make recommendations for a higher fee…
2) There is a real benefit for some part-time students.
They were excluded from the previous loan regime under the last government and had to pay full fees. This has been a long-standing Lib Dem complaint.
3) There should be less student poverty.
Maintenance grants and loans have been made more progressive and generous, although through a more complex system of tapers.
4) There are no upfront fees.
They are paid by the government and the graduate repays these at a rate of 9% once income exceeds £21,000. The debt is more akin to a future tax code and is not one that mortgage providers would consider. Students can be said to be “saddled with debt” only in the sense they are saddled with a prospective graduate tax code of 9% until their fees have been paid back, or for 30 years, whichever comes first.
5) The university bursary scheme is effectively replaced by a national bursary scheme.
This is desirable since it was very unclear to students in advance whether they would qualify for a bursary at any given university, and they would have to compete on the basis of poverty with others in front of their institution, which would not be edifying.
6) There is no market in higher education under these plans.
Nonetheless, major problems remain, which Evan describes:
Despite that being what Blair, Brown, Cameron and Lord Browne wanted, Vince Cable has managed to quash that.
Evan then discusses alternatives to the current proposals, and the political implications for Lib Dem MPs and the way they voted:
It still seems to me that general taxation or a graduate tax would be a better system for funding higher education, and I have not been convinced that a graduate tax is unworkable. It is very sad that the last Labour government refused to consider such a tax and failed to ask the Browne Review to explore it in a detailed and consultative way.
We ought to recognise that were it not for the Lib Dems in government, the proposals would have been a hell of a lot worse. Under a Labour or Tory government we would have had no cap or a higher cap, a market, and a less fair repayment system than is being proposed.
I understand why Lib Dem ministers, who are part of the coalition that has agreed a compromise with the Tories, are expected to vote for this policy and why the party’s whips want backbenchers to abstain, but I think that Lib Dem MPs are justified in voting against.
Evan then wrote a follow-up piece on The Guardian’s Comment is Free site, reproduced in full here:
In the largest ever Lib Dem rebellion, 21 of my former colleagues broke the whip last night to vote against the government’s tuition fee plans. If I was still a Lib Dem MP I would have been with them for the following reasons:
• The biggest challenge facing higher education is the failure to attract students from poor backgrounds and the negative impact that tuition fees have on those who are debt-averse from aspiring or applying to university. This is despite it being clear, when the proposed fee system is understood, that it should not deter anyone who does not object to a progressive graduate tax (since that is what it amounts to after graduation). A graduate tax would not carry the same deterrent image as debt.
• Tuition fees, especially highly variable ones, move towards a marketisation of higher education, which has been the aim of Tony Blair, Peter Mandelson, Gordon Brown and David Cameron. A graduate tax or income tax-funded system is a move away from that.
• Because this system moves away from a tax-funded model of higher education (although the subsidy of graduate contribution for fees still means there is significant taxpayer funding), which a graduate tax or general taxation obviously does not do.
I set this out in more detail on these pages previously. However, politics is to a certain extent the art of the possible and I am not critical of those Liberal Democrats who supported the government or abstained in the vote. This applies especially to those who have been involved in negotiating as fair a system as possible with Tory coalition partners whose philosophy in this area is very different. The fees regime could have been worse under a Tory or Labour government or under a coalition government where Lib Dems simply opted out of working on the policy. The Institute for Fiscal Studies in its latest report on the fees policy has set out its view that it is fairer than the current system (set up by Labour and supported by the Tories) and than the Browne review – established by Labour and supported by the Tories.
An unadulterated Tory (or Labour or Lord Browne) policy would have been one with no cap, fewer progressive repayments, total fee variability and a free market, no national bursary system, nothing for part-time students and less generous maintenance grants. So we should understand why politicians who worked hard to prevent that will want to vote for the better package they have negotiated and feel proud to do so.
Like all other Lib Dem candidates I stood on a manifesto that pledged to abolish tuition fees (over six years). In many letters to voters I pledged that even if we did not win the election and I was in opposition, I would continue my practice of voting against tuition fees and fee increases.
Neither in the manifesto nor in any of those signed letters of pledge did the question of coalition compromise come up. In contrast, whenever I was asked what was a “red line” for any coalition negotiations in a hung parliament (was it proportional representation for example?), I said that it was impossible to say in advance but that our top priorities were listed on page one of the manifesto. Tuition fee abolition was not included in those.
When the NUS asked me to sign a pledge combining the manifesto pledge and the commitment to vote against a Labour or Tory proposed increase in fees, I saw no reason not to sign it. In retrospect, this was clearly an error – and Nick Clegg has accepted this – because it did not make clear that such pledges cannot be guaranteed in a coalition agreement. This is a problem British politics will have to come to terms with. Interest groups and voters are entitled to expect that pledges are held to, force majeure excepted, when a platform consisting of those pledges wins an outright majority. But they need to understand that any resultant coalition government can only be held to what is in the agreed coalition programme, and not what is pledged in individual manifestos, pledges uttered in leadership debates, photo-opportunities with pledge cards and letters of pledged intent to voters. Are such pledges from now on all going to have to have riders setting out that any pledges are only guaranteed for single party outright majority government? Maybe.
Lib Dem candidates realised, or should have realised, that if they were in a coalition with either of the fee-loving parties (Tory or Labour) the starting positions would be so far apart that they would not necessarily be able to deliver on fees. The same applies to Tory candidates with their pledges to scrap the Human Rights Act, increase prison sentences and a host of other Tory sacred cows.
The cries of betrayal and the targeting of Nick Clegg and other Lib Dems by the NUS is a patently partisan political stunt, and the anger of students at the Lib Dems is misplaced and disproportionate.
The NUS is partisan because the president’s party – Labour – made a pledge before the 1997 not to introduce tuition fees if they got a single-party majority – and still broke that pledge. With no coalition deal to agree. It was a straightforward “betrayal” of a pledge with no excuse. The same thing happened in 2001 on top-up fees. The same thing happened in 2009 when instead of having a clear policy against lifting the cap, Labour set up the Browne commission to investigate how to do it without even asking them to do any work on a graduate tax alternative. In neither of these more blatant cases of betrayal was there a concerted anti-Labour campaign by NUS.
The NUS sought to target Simon Wright, the Lib Dem MP for Norwich South, who has since voted against tuition fee rises, while they did nothing against the previous MP – Charles Clarke, Labour’s tuition fee architect.
It is a bizarre situation when some in the protest movement seek to target the only 57 MPs (albeit with nationalists and some Labour rebels) who actually agree with them on the principle and who have done more than any politicians to deliver as fair a deal as possible.
Some may wish the Lib Dems were not a force in parliament. But be careful what you wish for. Let them see what an unfettered Tory or Labour government facing the fiscal crisis would have delivered on student finance.
Lastly, Evan interviewed Nick Clegg at length on the issues of higher education finance, an interview which is available on the party website.