Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Why Lib Dems have to get real on tuition fees

I guess they can be called growing pains. The rather messy debate in the Lib Dems over tuition fees has well and truely put us in the spotlight. There is a significant lesson here: don't make unrealistic commitments. Given that all our other commitments were properly costed and realistic, questions have to be asked as to how it was that such a generous spending commitment (phasing out tuition fees) was made to an interest group at a time when we were squeezing down on all other spending priorities.

I can't answer for other parties but my perception is that the internal debate on tuition fees by our MPs has not been marked by the venomous state of affairs that can be seen when the other two parties, especially Labour, have an internal debate on an issue where there are significant differences. That said, however, the debate in the Lib Dems has a major part missing: those who oppose the plans put forward by the government have put forward no credible alternative funding proposals. Sometimes, the graduate tax is suggested but most of those in the party who oppose the tuition fees plans simply rattle off the claim that our MPs made a pledge to the National Union of Students that they would oppose any rise of tuition fees.

Frankly, that is not good enough as a policy. In fact, it is not a policy for the country at all. It is simply an oppositionist stance. Frankly, the "pledge" should not have been made. As a party, we pledged to the whole nation that we would behave in a responsible manner in government and we would sort out the financial mess the country is in. So which pledge has top priority - the one made to the whole country to help save it from financial ruin, or the one made to an interest group which is demanding the rest of the country should pick up the tab for their enhanced earning potential?

Higher education is a privilege, not a right. Only the half of young people are entitled to it - those who have reached a minimum academic standard. The other half don't reach that standard or choose not to go to university. Why should they have to pick up so large a share of the costs when they are not direct beneficiaries? Why should those who are the direct beneficiaries by having their earnings potential significantly increased, not pay a fairer share of the cost? I hear some members of the Lib Dems say that university education should be free as of right. But free for those fortunate enough to go to university means someone else pays. And that means an unfair burden falling on those who are not entitled to go a higher education - and they tend to be people from lower income groups within society. Can Lib Dems opposed to the government's plans continue to argue that higher education should be provided entirely at the cost of everyone else? It's time for them to get real.

The package that Vince Cable has negotiated is a significant step forward. It is fair to the nation as a whole and is specifically geared to ensuring students only pay after they have graduated and only pay an amount that is affordable. Anyone earning less than the median income will pay nothing. Those who do best out of the system and become higher rate taxpayers will pay more in interest - everyone else will be charged an interest rate the same as inflation, so the debt burden will not increase in real terms.

Most importantly of all, the money raised from tuition fees goes to the universities themselves. Students will be the customers. This will force up standards and improve results. Popular courses will be able to expand. Universities will be free of interfering governments and won't be on the sharp end of cuts from future Chancellors. Students themselves, rather than governments or institutions will set the pace.

So, to those Lib Dem MPs planning to go through the opposition lobby tomorrow, ask yourself whether or not your alternative will achieve all this. If it does, at least tell us what that alternative is and how it will be funded. If you don't have an alternative however, the moral grounds for voting against what's on offer are somewhat thin.

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1 comment:

dougf said...

Excellent commentary. Imao, anyway. :-)

The REAL problem of course is that a lot of LibDem activists and even some MP's are hopelessly ill suited to actual GOVERNING. It's frightfully hard.
The ONLY hope the Party has to become something other than a temporary catch-all for every form of free floating 'progressive' grievance, no matter how affordable, is to soldier on through the 5 years of the Coalition.
Unhappily it often seems as if the children of the Party are in charge. I doubt you will be popular for this opinion piece. You should be --- but that's the problem of the Party in a nutshell.
Not enough grown-ups.
Five years in a position of real influence MUST change that.