Cast your minds back ten years: a fresh faced David Cameron in his first months as Prime Minister, a coalition government still in its honeymoon and a Labour party electing Ed Miliband as the man to try and lead the party back to power after the Blair/Brown years.
The autumn of 2010 represented the first big test for the Coalition government. A government committed to an austerity agenda had higher education in its sights and the proposals on the table were an eye watering 80% cut to English universities teaching budgets, a trebling of tuition fees in England from £3k to £9k to year and for the FE sector more cuts and the scrapping of the Education Maintenance Allowance.
Today marks the ten year anniversary when HE funding became a defining national issue. What started off as a 50,000 strong peaceful student protest organised by the National Union of Students – the largest in generations – was eventually hijacked at the fringes, and catapulted the debate to another level. It was no longer just a debate about the merits about how higher education should be funded, it became a debate about tactics, about lobbying versus protest and for some it set a path for how the left should engage with the Conservative led government.
When we look back at the history books we will see that the protest and the subsequent wave of campus action didn’t change the result, a few weeks later the headline proposal to increase tuition fees squeezed through Parliament by just 25 votes (on the back of broken Lib Dem promises). But the anger lingered, impressions were formed, and a new wave of activism hit campuses and large chunks of left politics more generally.
At the time I felt like I was in the middle of a whirlwind as President of NUS. Thrust in the middle of a contentious political debate, trying to walk the tightrope of leading an organisation that wanted to be taken seriously and engage constructively, whilst harnessing and at times having to temper the legitimate anger of students who felt betrayed by the government and others that NUS itself should forget trying to talk with government and should simply shout. One moment I would be facing Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight trying to present NUS as a credible commentator on the debate with solutions that should be taken seriously, and the next I would be visiting student occupations and campus activists who wouldn’t countenance any sort of tuition fee, let alone an increase.
Why it mattered
There are several reasons why the tuition fee debate of 2010 resonated so powerfully. It wasn’t just a question of how HE should be funded, it spoke to intergenerational injustice with young people having to pay for the profligacy of the generations that went before them, but it also spoke to the question of trust in politics. Before the 2010 general election, NUS had invited every single Parliamentary candidate to sign a pledge to vote against an increase in tuition fees during the next Parliament. Only a handful of Conservative candidates signed the pledge, Labour were largely split down the middle, but the Liberal Democrats signed in droves and every single of the 57 Lib Dem MPs that got elected were signatories including Nick Clegg, Vince Cable and backbenchers like Simon Hughes.
As summer turned to autumn, and attempts to square the circle which would have allowed higher education funding not to go into freefall but somehow reconcile the pledge the Lib Dems proved impossible it was clear that a major political story lay in wait. But it was 10 November 2010 which saw this story break into the national consciousness. The images of student protestors breaking into Millbank Tower (home to Conservative Party HQ), and others who made it onto the roof became the representation of this anger – even if it was only a tiny minority of the students who participated in what was otherwise a largely peaceful protest. It was certainly the day that the student movement became more fractured with the hard left committed to more and more direct action, whereas others (including large numbers of SU Presidents) wanted a more pragmatic negotiated approach.
What might have been
I often wonder whether anything could have been done differently to stop the proposals in their tracks. Hard left student activists told me that waves of civil disobedience would have brought the government to its knees and eventually would have forced them to abandon the vote in Parliament. Liberal Democrat MPs told me that we needed to stop targeting them, and understand the predicament they were faced with. At the time I thought both groups were wrong, and I still think that today.
Ultimately it came down to this: the Conservatives knew that the proposals would pass in Parliament if more than half the Lib Dem MPs could be convinced to support them. And 6 months into a Coalition government, there just weren’t enough Lib Dems prepared to defeat the government – even if many of them knew that ultimately it might cost them their seat 5 years later. Many Lib Dem MPs told me they were acting in the national interest, and I am sure many of them believed it. Personally I thought those Lib Dems who voted for the proposals that their loyalty was to Nick Clegg, to their Ministerial cars and to the thought of being part of a government that might go down in history. Ultimately the only thing that went down in history was their Parliamentary careers when they next had to face the public. At the 2015 general election the Lib Dems reduced from 57 to just 8 MPs and this was the price they ultimately paid, but no real consolation to those now at university saddled to the new fee regime.
Looking back I have tried to examine what were the alternatives. Had tuition fees not increased, there was no indication that the 80 per cent cut to teaching budgets would have been abandoned. The cuts to the teaching budget had already been passed in George Osborne’s emergency austerity budget earlier that year, so they were coming. The reality was that universities were facing cuts unlike anything they had faced before, and without replacement funding, dozens of universities would have faced closure. And faced with this choice, Universities UK took the position that higher fees were the only solution. NUS under my leadership proposed a progressive graduate tax which would have seen tuition fees abolished, and although Vince Cable briefly indicated this was his preference (in a speech at London South Bank in August 2010), by autumn he had been convinced by colleagues that trebling fees was the only way forward.
Were we right all along?
A decade on, we can have a more measured evaluation of whether £9k fees have proven to be a good policy or not. They did prevent the chronic under-funding of the sector, and probably avoided widespread closures. But the system as a whole as we know is actually a more expensive one, than the system it replaced. A simple accounting trick moved money that was previously counted against the national debt, so for the short term and for the purposes of paying down the deficit (the overriding concern of the Coalition) it did the trick. As we know, in 2018 the Office for National Statistics called this conjuring act for what it is, and reversed the way in which HE is accounted for.
So we have been left with a system that is both more expensive for the state and for the individuals which go through it. And for all the efforts to try and ensure that the repayment mechanism is progressive, graduates still leave the system with debts upward of £40,000 and even if they don’t pay it off in full or even at all, they feel they have a debt hanging over their head for decades. Worse, because the system is now so expensive for the state it has focussed the Treasury on trying to secure an economic return on the loans they administer. A direction of travel that means public policy judges higher education courses on its economic returns, not on its quality or dare I say the enjoyment or fulfilment it gives to those who study and teach it.
Sadly I think UUK back in 2010 helped to open the door for this obsession with economic return when they accepted the only way to fill the gap in cuts to teaching funding was by trebling fees, and were not prepared to countenance an alternative like a graduate tax which still would have funded the sector but would not have caused such a direct link to individual subjects. This case for a stronger economic return borne out of the 2010 reforms, and the potential for fees that vary by economic return is writ large in the current approach to HE – which in its utilitarian analysis of value sows the seeds for the future challenges ahead.
The impact of the 2010 demonstration was much wider than its impact on the HE sector. It ignited a new approach, particularly for many young people and politics. It left those bruised by the debate with the feeling that no matter how much you reasoned with the establishment, even if they had given you a signed promise on a pledge card, it didn’t matter. Many felt a new approach was required. We undoubtedly saw a growth in more radical action and attitudes on campus, and a sense that “another world was possible”. A few years later, direct lines can be drawn between the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party and the student action and anger of 2010 – indeed many of Corbyn’s inner circle and biggest public supporters were active participants in the hard left student direct action of that time.
For my own part, I can’t help feel that higher education has been left worse off not just because of the funding system that we’ve been left with, but because it helped to fuel a shift to the political extreme. No matter whatever your thoughts on Jeremy Corbyn (and I have many!), even his most loyal supporters will agree with me that Corbyn represented a shift to the left and a less pragmatic, more uncompromising view of the world. Sadly my conclusion is that this left a gaping hole in the political centre and gave the electoral right a decade in power which they might not have had otherwise. Lots of students’ unions (but not all) have felt they needed to become more uncompromising themselves, less willing to work with universities, although slowly I feel this tide is turning back too in much the same way the Labour Party has realised that the Corbyn experiment failed. You don’t bring about change by shouting from the sidelines, but it can come from rolling up your sleeves, engaging in the detail, taking responsibility and yes sometimes compromising and being pragmatic.
The tuition fee debate changed the way universities are funded, it changed NUS, it changed the prevailing narrative in students’ unions, it may even have contributed to shift the Labour party and in my view – none of it for the better. A decade on, some of this is being turned around. The higher education sector still lives the legacy of a funding system which is obsessed with economic return, and this can not be easily unwound without brave leadership and new ideas.