10 December 2010

The Commons tuition fees votes are done. Well, the votes are done but probably not the aftermath for the Libdems. I am going to focus in this post on Cornwall MPs.

There were two votes yesterday (divisions 150 and 151) on raising the cap, the maximum that undergraduate students can be charged, to £9000 a year and raising the basic fee to £6000 a year. The three Conservative MPs from Cornwall voted yes; one of the Liberal Democrats, Stephen Gilbert, who is a whip, voted yes; two Liberal Democrats, Andrew George and Dan Rogerson, voted no. These fees apply only to English universities as the devolved governments are responsible for university fees there.

All three Cornwall Libdems had signed a pledge to vote against any rise in tuition fees. George and Rogerson kept their promise; Gilbert didn’t. None of the three Conservatives had signed that pledge.

The pledge and keeping it/breaking it is an issue about which the Libdems as a party have damaged themselves seriously; repeatedly shifting ground by the party leadership as the party tried to get itself out of a hole of its own making compounded the damage. The Libdem party has forfeited trust. Despite the twenty one Libdem MPs who voted against the rise, many people who voted for the party will feel let down and be very reluctant to believe the Libdem party again.

I have looked at the Libdem MP websites. Gilbert’s explanation for voting for the rise doesn’t mention his signed pledge. He focuses on the minutiae of the government’s proposals and says they are an improvement on the present arrangements. He says he believes “higher education should be free”. Andrew George, for whom the sticking point appears to be raising the cap, also says, “If we were in power we would…get rid of tuition fees”. Rogerson says briefly his concern is “the government’s contribution to tuition”. I assume he means the cap should remain at just over £3000 or possibly that the division of costs between government/taxpayers and students should be different from the present and proposed arrangements.

I am presently unclear whether the abolition for tuition fees is still Libdem policy or is effectively a disregarded relic from the past, a dead clause 4 or hanging-and-flogging awaiting eventual erasure from the party agenda.

Incidentally, after three years at university a graduate will owe £18 000 or perhaps
£27 000 in tuition fees; if he had a loan for maintenance as well his total debt might be around £38 000. Two graduates marrying, a usual occurrence, might well have a combined couple debt of £77 000.

I mention these scary figures because the supporters of the new fees avoid mentioning them.

The Libdems nationally have struggled with this question. They have tried in the past to portray themselves as righteously different than other parties: it’s time to put an end to broken promises, for promises to be kept, Nick Clegg said in his video, comparing his Libdems with Tories and Labour. It turns out they are just like the others.

This is an ideological argument as well as a practical one. The Conservative party appears to believe in a significant shift in the balance of funding university education from society collectively through taxes as the major funder to individuals through much higher fees for individual students. The Tory Libdem government’s cutting of the university teaching grant by 80 percent in the comprehensive spending review has left universities with a funding gap and raising tuition fees is seen by the government as a way of plugging that gap (though arts and humanities courses are seriously imperilled). This tallies with the Tories’ notions of individualism.

Libdems generally have gone along with the 80 percent cut but some have then baulked at the fee rise, not a credible position, I think. As I said, I don’t know whether the party still seeks the abolition of tuition fees; and I am unclear where the argument from some Libdems about current economic circumstances making abolition unaffordable and increases unavoidable fits in.

Labour, who introduced tuition fees and increased them, appears to have no current worked-out policy though an undefined graduate tax seems to be the preferred view. I think had Labour won the election in May it would be putting up fees.