Belated thoughts on tuition fees: The ball is in Labour’s court

I feel a tremendous guilt for allowing my political articles to dry up over the last few months. It is not as if there have not been issues to debate, dissect and confront. In fact the coalition’s spending cuts have energised the public’s political opinions more than any other topic in recent years. Whether their policies are right or wrong, this government has shown a willingness to listen to its people and even a tendency to undo unpopular decisions when faced with a sufficient backlash, albeit over relatively minor issues like free milk, sport in schools and reading initiatives.

 I have also not stopped writing about politics due to a loss of interest or lack of activity; in fact the opposite scenario is the case. I’ve welcomed the Lib Dem achievements gained in power. I have joined a number of campaigns against government policies I believe to be destructive and misguided, such as plans to sell off Britain’s woodlands, and marched on several student protests. Hordes of people to seem feel that the gravity of what the coalition is doing demands opposition and not only this but that the very nature of coalition politics makes democratic protest unusually effective.

Why then the failure to articulate reasoned and persuasive arguments against the cuts? In particular why the lack of output in relation to tuition fees? An issue directly relevant to my immediate future and the strength of the party I voted for, now branded as the great betrayers. After all as I’ve already said, it is not as if I would think my actions completely hopeless. Even though the motion passed in the Commons, the foundations of the government’s majority were shown to be extremely weak when great pressure is applied, with both Conservative and Lib Dem MPs refusing to back their leaders. If I added my voice to the online chorus it might not do much but it could do no harm in adding to the ever rising volume of argument.

I suppose I felt compromised. So swept up was I in passionate outrage, camaraderie and the excitement of genuinely doing something historic, that I could not write in a sufficiently detached, analytical manner. The issue was simply too close to home and tied up with too many emotions for me to rationally look closely at all sides of the debate. That is not to say I don’t have opinions I believe to be well supported and accurate about the issue, just that whenever I tried to express them they would sound weak and as if they were merely scratching the surface of something so vitally important to economic recovery, the future of our country and my own education. Of course I managed to write up my experiences of protest but whatever I said sounded inadequate and I felt incapable of getting across how strongly my fellow marchers felt and how justified I believed them to be.

Now though I am finally going to attempt to air my views on the issue, if only for my own personal relief and satisfaction. By keeping them simple and focusing on where the debate goes from here, I hope they can cut through all the complexity to the heart of the matter.

Firstly a note on Nick Clegg and his ministers’ eventual decision to back the plans. I completely understand why he chose to vote in favour of the proposals. He worked hard to inject fairness into the legislation and went above and beyond the safeguards suggested in the Browne report, despite the fact he was unavoidably still engineering a policy that upped the fees he’d promised his party would fight to keep down and if possible, abolish altogether. I think Clegg genuinely believes that despite the rise in fees, the modifications he secured ensure the new system will be fairer, especially for disadvantaged students, than the previous one. However it was still a grave mistake for Clegg not to utilise the clause in the coalition agreement allowing his party to abstain. He may have worried that had the motion not passed universities would have faced a funding crisis and the coalition would have splintered. Or behind the scenes he may have only gained his concessions in exchange for his supporting vote. Nevertheless if the option for him to abstain was truly there, he was foolish not to take it. Or, ironically given the savage demonization of him as a treacherous liar, he is simply too honest to not back a plan he was a partial architect of and believes in. Even after this crisis I am still of the opinion that Nick Clegg is a bold and truly progressive politician, bravely securing real change through compromise. I may disagree with his decision to back the change to tuition fees and stand aside for other Conservative policy, but this is the reality of coalition, and if he had had a majority government (in a dreamy alternate world) he would’ve squeezed the budget elsewhere.

At the height of the protests Clegg desperately tried to champion his hard won tweaks for fairness and criticised the marchers drumming up unfounded fears about the new system. Here he made another catastrophic political error, essentially labelling the protestors, vast swathes of which probably voted Lid Dem, as ignorant. If he’d listened to the prevailing, dominant chant at the protests he’d have understood that the marchers weren’t ignorant and that whatever modifications he offered as sweeteners collapsed under one fact: “NO IFS, NO BUTS, NO EDUCATION CUTS”. Just like everything else the coalition was facing opposition over, these protests were primarily about cuts. The NUS and others had made the mistake of focusing on the rise in fees in their criticisms; perhaps because the thought of paying more would inspire more students to turn up. But in reality it would be several years before the higher fees would come in and some real help had been hardwired in for poorer students. The arguments that a burden of debt would be a huge deterrent, that there would be no proper help for middle income families and that students would choose their university on price not quality, were all valid, but not as clear and convincing as the cuts.

The cuts to teaching and all aspects of university funding were big and would hit the standard and availability of university education immediately. Ideologically what really irked people was that fees were rising to plug the gap from a drop in government investment, thus sparking accusations of a shift to a privatised system predominantly paid for by students directly. Logically the coalition’s insistent argument that the rise in fees was a necessary evil to secure Britain’s world class higher education system long term, also fell apart because of the deficit driven cuts. All the reports say universities need more money to remain competitive. But the government was actually reducing investment and making up the shortfall with a huge hike in fees which might even jeopardise the current quality of education, let alone increase it. Perhaps most bafflingly of all, the government plans, with all Clegg and co’s little alterations for fairness, would still require expenditure and make absolutely no impact on the size of deficit, the coalition’s Holy Grail.

The leaders of campaign groups rant and rave that, as with Thatcher’s Poll Tax, protests will continue despite coalition success in Parliament, until the act is undone. However it looks unlikely that anything other than a hardcore will continue to mobilise on this issue. Unless, of course, a real alternative can be found to march for. This was always the Achilles heel of these protests, and marchers discussed it, wishing someone would get their act together. The ball is now in Ed Miliband’s court, with his new generation of Labour players. Labour must offer a practical but popular vision for higher education, sooner rather than later, if the fight is not to be lost. Of course Miliband’s team needed time to get it right and may need more, but the clock is ticking.

It will be a difficult balance to strike for Miliband. Understandably as a new, fresh leader of the Opposition, he jumped on the bandwagon of protest, stopping short of joining one, but regularly singing the praises of a graduate tax. Ultimately this progressive leap forward may prove unworkable and in any case his chosen Shadow Chancellor opposes any such measure. But if Labour focus on the cuts to higher education they can still offer a fairer, point scoring alternative. Growth is the coalition’s weak spot and Labour should highlight the decisions of other major economies to boost education investment and therefore jobs and tax revenues. A world class university system should drive a sustainable economic recovery. Restore investment and throw in a drop in fees, whilst retaining some Lib Dem additions, and Labour would not only be doing the right thing but keeping alive an issue that could break the coalition, with a credible, sensible alternative.

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