Sunday 1 March 2015

Don't mention the - tuition fees!

The one thing we Liberal Democrats would prefer  not to have mentioned on the doorstep, or anywhere else for that matter, is "tuition fees."  That is probably why Ed Miliband has introduced his own policy, to reduce the maximum payable. from £9 000 to £6 000.

So far Miliband's policy, announced last Friday, has been a great success.  Every news bulletin that I've heard or seen since then has, in reporting  Labour's new  policy, mentioned that the Liberal Democrats promised - no, pledged - in the 2010 election  to vote against any rise, and then didn't.  Only one bulletin I  heard mentioned that Labour themselves had said in their manifesto for 1997 that they had  "no plans" to introduce tuition fees, the in 1998 introduced them, at  a means-tested rate  of £1 000 a year, payable up front.  Then their Education Secretary David Blunket promised in 2001 that there would be no "top up" fees, but then  topped them up to £3 000 a year in 2004.  Nor did  any bulletin refer to the Tories' 2010 promise of no "top down " reorganisation of the NHS, but, to be fair, that's not on the topic.

So, it may not be fair, but we Liberal Democrats are the ones stuck with the stigma of the broken promise.  The reputation that Liberal Democrat councillors had painstakingly built up over thirty or more years, that "Vote Liberal/Liberal Democrat" and you really will get what it says on the tin, was blown in one stupid decision.  The damage affects not just our party, but all of British politics. The reported comment of  Caroline Lucas in Guardian Weekend  expresses the wider damage very accurately:

As for Nick Clegg, she says his reversal on tuition fees  is responsible for much of the cynicism  about British politics today,  "What I can't forgive  is that it was always  difficult as an MP  to say 'Trust me', but you can't say that now (28/02/2015)

Milband's ploy presumably  has the additional function of acting as a bribe to the "yoof" vote* to counteract the Tories' blatant courtship of  we pensioners with our costly and unnecessary 4% guaranteed savings bonds (available only to the over 65s), and promises of continued winter fuel allowances and free TV licences (over 75s only).

 Be that as it may, if implemented, and it is difficult to see how Labour would dare do otherwise if they are the majority party in the next government, the benefit of the fee reduction will, according to the highly respected Institute for Fiscal  Studies, go largely to those graduates who go into highly paid areas (banking, perhaps, PR, the law?).  Those in the more humble occupations (teachers, nurses etc) are unlikely to earn enough to pay back much over the amount  of "debt" accumulated at £6 000 a year, whatever the maximum is.

The irony is that the present system, even with a maximum of £9 000, is not all that bad,  It does not seem to have impacted adversely on university applications,  involves no  "up front" payment, applies to part-time as well as full-time students, repayments do not "kick in" until a reasonable level of salary is reached, does not affect graduates' credit rating, and is time limited.  Had we called it a "graduate tax" (an idea I picked up from a Professor Sandford of Bath University way back in the 1960s and have advocated ever since) we should have ended up with much the same result and saved ourselves a lot of opprobrium.

 *  Professor Simon Wren Lewis discusses some interesting aspects of this possibility on his blog:

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