Grasping the nettle – What should our tuition fees policy be?

By Andrew Emmerson*

We all know the damage tuition fees did to our party, and I imagine too many it’s still a very touchy subject. At the moment we’ve tacitly accepted the current fees regime knowing its better than Labours mess, but it still remains official Lib Dem Policy to scrap tuition fees over a 6 year period. One day, we will need to grasp the proverbial nettle and decide where we as Lib Dems want to head with our higher education policy, I believe, as controversial as this may be, that we should favour the coalition status quo.

No matter what happens, dealing with tuition fees in the future is going to be bloody and painful. Come 2015, there will rightly be a lot of attention on what policy we put into our manifesto, so we have to choose wisely. Retaining our pledge to abolish fees, whilst I’m sure to many idealists in the party is the right thing to do, I disagree, I believe it’s wrong both in principle and politically. Politically it simply no longer has credibility, not only will the largest part of the electorate simply not believe us, we’ll be openly and actively ridiculed for it. It also makes a bit of a do or die strategy for future coalitions, if we were to promise it again, and then to go into coalition with either Labour or Conservatives, we would have to make it an absolute red line, something we’d use up nearly all of our bargaining chips on to achieve. It would be suicidal. Not only that, but it’s wrong in principle, any such notion would in almost all certainty require a massive cut in student numbers, is cutting the number of graduates so drastically something we really want to be doing? I doubt it. It also means that graduates who on average earn 12k more a year than non-graduates would not be expected to contribute 1p to their education. Is it fair with so much extra earning power that you shouldn’t at least contribute something to the cost of your education? I hardly think so. Keeping our current policy is not an option.

So what should be our future? We should be careful not to tall into the Miliband trap, wherein he promised to cut fees to 6k, and this was very quickly proved to be bunkum giving a tax cut to the richest graduates. So for me it’s still the status quo of coalition policy. I’ve extolled the virtue of the system many times before, and most notably in my personal blog here. Despite the massive number on the price sticker, most people will not come close to paying back that amount,. Indeed, the worst part of the new fees regime is just how badly it’s been explained. It’s a good system, it’s progressive, it’s fair and means the help, and support for graduates in terms of money will come at the start of their careers, at the point they need it most. Politically, it will be tough, but no decision will be easy, but if we point to how good the system is, we look like we are dealing with reality, we can show that student numbers haven’t fallen too dramatically (a small cut is probably not a bad thing, as most people believe too many people were/are going to university), then I believe we will be heading in the right direction.

Finally, It may not be unreasonable either to shift the coalition policy with a few very minor tweaks into a graduate tax, it may also be politically more viable, but I’m still not sure that any promises we make will be taken seriously. That one is up for the members to decide.

So what do you think?

*The views in this article, are the views of the author only and do not represent the views of The Libertine or Liberal Youth


9 thoughts on “Grasping the nettle – What should our tuition fees policy be?

  1. Hear hear on the status quo front. I personally wouldn’t have been able to go to university before tuition fees.

  2. If there were more apprenticeships, more vocational courses and more jobs for youngsters to do, then I’m generally for cutting student numbers tbh. Am not sure I agree with a graduate tax – but I do agree that going into the next election with the policy of scrapping tuition fees would be ridiculous.

  3. Largely agreed, although I’m quite unusual for a Lib Dem because I was fine with fees when Labour first introduced them.

  4. I largely agree, but I’m quite unusual for a Lib Dem, having had no problem when Labour first introduced them.

  5. I pretty much agree with you Andrew. I’ve long disagreed with our policy of no tuition fees since I think it’s both fair and encourages responsibility to ask those of us wishing to have a degree to contribute towards the costs of that education. I also think you’re absolutely right that almost any policy beyond the coalition status quo would be extremely politically untenable. I would add to your final thoughts, however, that in the long run it should be a priority for Liberal Democrats to establish some form of student finance (loans or greater provision for bursaries/grants etc.) for post-graduate education in this country.

  6. Small factual point: If graduates earn £12k a year more than non-graduates, they pay £3,840 per year (in general) more tax and national insurance than non-graduates – and if they’re top rate tax payers, they currently pay £6,240 per year more.

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