Dr. Evan Harris writes in the Guardian, and interviews Nick Clegg, regarding tuition fees

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.

Firstly, Evan wrote the following on his Guardian blog Political Science (you can read the full article here, which includes hyperlinks to all sources):

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.

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4 comments on “Dr. Evan Harris writes in the Guardian, and interviews Nick Clegg, regarding tuition fees
  1. a6ruled says:

    i am a member of no political party. in my life, in general elections, i have voted conservative, green, and libdem.

    you cannot predict what an incoming labour government would have done with the browne review. if the libdems were currently in opposition we might have predicted that they would have defended higher education in government – we would have been wrong. if what your spokesmen (sometimes) say about libdem mitigation is true then we can guess that the conservative response would have been bad.

    re your parting shot:

    “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.”

    i do not believe that a tory majority government would have been any worse (in my terms) than the coalition. i have listened to the dismissive and agressive arguments of your senior spokesmen of the unavoidable, unassailable ‘rightness’ of your policies on fees, on spending, on welfare and public services. i have listened to the patronsing implications that anyone who disagrees with you is ill-informed or stupid.

    the only reasonable conclusion from these communications – communicatons over which you have complete control – is that even a majority libdem government would be doing exactly the same thing.

    you can’t have it both ways. you can’t lecture us that you are right beyond argument and at the same time claim that you are fighting on our behalf against a government, your government, that would be worse if you weren’t in it. you are in it. you are it.

    right now, it the coalition collapsed and the conservatives subsequently got a majority on the basis that we now know what they (with your help and with your full agreement) are planning to do to vulnerable people, public services that i care about and, particularly, the NHS then i’d accept that.

    this? no.

  2. Laurence Cox says:

    I am not totally opposed to student tuition fees, but what I think is particularly wrong is the 80% cut in funding of university teaching that will mean the universities all having to charge nearly £9000 to make up for lost funding. I also think that there are still serious flaws in the current proposals. I sent the following to Nick and Vince:

    1) The argument for charging student fees is that the graduate will earn over his or her lifetime significantly more than the non-graduate. It has been claimed that this amounts to (on average) £100,000 to £200,000. On this basis, it makes no sense for tuition fees repayments to begin at a salary of £21,000 when the median annual salary for all full-time employees is £26,000. We should only be requiring repayments when graduates earn more than the average.

    2) Lord Browne said that the debt should be indexed by inflation. Whilst the Chancellor is now increasing benefits and pensions in line with CPI, student debt will be increased in line with the higher RPI. The Government must be consistent in its choice of index.

    3) If a graduate does not pay off enough over the 30 year period to repay the amount borrowed, then it makes no sense to charge interest on it, as it will only add to the amount written off by the Government at the end of the term. To repay just a £30,000 debt under the Government scheme means that the graduate has to earn an average of over £32,000 per year for 30 years (in 2010 money). I propose that no interest should be charged on any graduate who is not a higher-rate taxpayer and it should be tapered as under the Government scheme for those above the 40% tax threshold.

    4) Lord Browne recommended increasing the threshold for repayments from £15,000 to £21,000. However, the Government’s proposal that this should be £21,000 in 2016 means that if inflation averages 3% over that period, that £21,000 will only be worth just over £17,500 in 2010 money. Even worse, those graduating in 2020 (a year before the first quinqennial review) will be making repayments on the equivalent of £15,600 in 2010 money, almost as low as the existing (and unacceptable) level. I propose that not only should the threshold be set at the national median salary, but that it should be reviewed annually. The Treasury can do this for benefits and pensions already; there is no reason why it should not be done for student fees repayments [The Government have since announced that they will review thresholds annually, but still starting after 2016].

    5) The accounting of the student tuition fees by the Government is another area that seems to be unsatisfactory. As I understand it, although the Government loans money to students and borrows money for this purpose, this does not form part of the PSBR. Because part of the money loaned will not be repaid (some have suggested that this will be as high as 50% of the total) when the Government in 30 years time writes off the first tranche of uncollected debt, this will, presumably, have to be added to the PSBR. In effect, I think we are making a transfer of wealth from our children’s generation to our generation. I propose that the Office for Budget Responsibility be asked to look at the accounting of the student loan system and ensure that it does not lead to any inter-generational transfer of wealth.

  3. Good article, and thanks for that. Bit it’s a bit too long, Prateek.
    Anyway, we’ve now moved on.
    The twin and relating campaigning aims now are (a)to boost non-academic and vocational-based Higher Education
    (we used to twin-track many subjects with both academic and non-academic courses at either universities or polytechnics or technical colleges, e.g. Chemical Engineering, Chemistry, Electrical Engineering, Civil Engineering, Agriculture)
    (b)to ensure that the balance of contribution on tuition funding between central gov funding and student contibutions via fees is one that can be varied from time to time as economic conditions allow and social and educational objectives vary.

  4. Adam Hawken says:

    You’re right in saying that the NUS leadership is partisan. For too long a position in the NUS hierarchy has been seen as a stepping stone to a job in New Labour. You are wrong however to believe that the NUS is in anyway leading the student movement. On the day the vote was held the NUS lead a glowstick (because candles are too dangerous!) lit vigil morning the death of higher education. It was attended by about 300 people. Simultaneously, down the road in Parliament Square, 30,000 student protesters were being kettled, horse charged and batoned by police on a demonstration the NUS told its members not to attend!

    It is also sickening that Aaron Porter in his letter to Simon Hughes asked him to ensure that fees would only be doubled in most cases and not tripled. Aaron Porter is a feckless careerist who has dismally failed to stand up for the interests of those he claims to represent.

    We have not finished fighting yet!

    Students are targeting the LibDems not because they favour Labour higher education policies (they have no higher education policies!) but because by pledging to vote against fees the Liberal Democrats went above and beyond a mere manifesto commitment. Nick Clegg promised us a new kind of politics and has given us a new kind of thatcherism.

    It is also a grave error to see the student protest movement as being solely about fees. This is something that the media and politicians (from all parties) just don’t get. Cuts to teaching and research grants will be far more damaging to our education system than any increase in fees. The scrapping of the Education Maintenance Allowance will discourage thousands of the poorest children in the country from finishing school, let alone thinking about university.

    Without the material means to exercise our liberty such liberty is meaningless. The government’s programme of cuts is hitting the disabled, the unemployed, women and young people harder than the rest of society. How exactly will this make Britain a fairer place to live?

    They are selling off our national forests for petty cash. Taking something that belongs to the people and has done since Magna Carta and putting it in the hands of private companies. What kind of country will we be left with when this government is finished?

    The youth today will work longer hours for more years of their life paying pension contributions that they’ll probably never get back. Paying taxes that get syphoned off by unregulated bankers. Living on a dying, overpopulated planet with dwindling resources fixing problems they didn’t cause.

    The student movement is diverse and it is growing. We will win because we have to.

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