Today’s tuition fees vote will make for an interesting bit of history in 20 years’ time.
Before I say why, here are a few (probably unpopular) thoughts on the issue of tuition fees:
- I agree in both principle and practice with tuition fees. A university education is a choice, and something to be valued by the individual who makes that choice. Once the principle of fees had been established by the Labour government the politics of funding higher education was always going to be about where the cap on fees was, not whether there were fees.
- I don’t happen to think of any education in the utilitarian way politicians seem to think of it – utlitarian as demonstrated by the fact it’s the responsibility of the Business Secretary and not the Education Secretary. Thus, if a higher education is valuable in its own right (whilst also having an economic benefit to the individual and the economy), it should be paid for (at least in majority part) by the individual.
- Admitting the possibility of fees means a market will, and probably should, develop. Yes, this effectively makes it a US-type model, but I’m comfortable with that. A University Fund for young ‘uns in a family is a good idea.
- A graduate tax is a nonsense because an individual would never stop paying it and their repayments could be more than the cost of the fees. It has elements of progressiveness in it, but it’s also a disincentive on social mobility.
Watching the Lib Dems struggle on the topic of university tuition fees has, I’ll be honest, brought me some pleasure. Their position was and is a nonsense, as follows:
- Their position on tuition fees was pretty much the most distinctive and best-known domestic policy they had. They’ve traded that at the fist sniff of power; either that, or they knew their policy was a nonsense but had worked on the basis they would never need to implement it. (This is partly supported by the idea Nick Clegg privately urged his colleagues to drop the position.)
- I don’t know that anyone had anticipated Clegg’s “New Politics” being the explicit reneging of a personal and party pledge to oppose not just a rise in tuition fees, but the removal of tuition fees.
- Clegg has tried to defend the move by saying previously 1 in 7 people went to university and now it’s 1 in 3. What is that if not a huge rise in opportunity for people from a wider range of backgrounds?
- That government ministers even considered not voting for their own policy (even if they end up doing so) tells you what an incredibly ridiculous position the Lib Dems got themselves in.
All things considered – and even taking into account the short memories and fickle nature of the British voting public – the tuition fees debacle as applied to the Lib Dems makes me think they may never in a generation or two be thought of as any sort of credible, governing force at a national level.
When the future comes and I potentially drop my one-year-old as 18-year-old off at university, I’ll think back to today and mention to him the peculiar time when a small party called the Liberal Democrats, led by a pub-quiz question politician called Nick Clegg, abandoned their policy and principles because they happened to have a bit of power.