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Fees still haunt the Lib Dems

Following a disastrous result at the European and Council elections, it seems that the Lib Dems are still haunted by the 2010 decision to raise tuition fees. With Nick Clegg facing challenges to his leadership and with a General Election now less than a year away, Dewi Knight takes a look at the state of the Lib Dems and their fractious relationship with higher education policy.
This article is more than 9 years old

Dewi Knight is Senior Education Adviser, China at the British Council. He previously worked in policy, strategy and communications roles for the University of Bedfordshire, The Open University and the Liberal Democrats. He is a member of Wonkhe’s Editorial Group.

It seems that as far as the last week’s European and Council elections were concerned for the Lib Dems, it was tuition fees that lost it. Again. A decision that costs English students personally £27,000 (at sticker price) over three years has cost Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats far more. 10 MEPs, over 300 councillors, and that was just last Thursday.

Thursday’s losses come after the earlier council wipeout in Wales and Scotland (and the struggles in the devolved elections), and the disastrous English council elections since 2011.

The pledge

Nick Clegg has apologised for breaking his pledge not to raise fees, but it hasn’t helped. In the Deputy Prime Minister’s own words, he’d “made a pledge. We did not stick to it. And for that, I am sorry”. Elsewhere in that YouTube favourite (over 2.6m views of the remix version), Mr Clegg apologises for making a promise he that he couldn’t be “absolutely sure” he could deliver, and a policy that was “too expensive…when there was no money around”.

That Clegg felt moved enough to make a mea culpa on this issue is evidence of the perennial pounding that grass-roots party members suffer as they seek to make the case on the doorstep, ‘all year around, not just at election time’  as the leaflets say.

Looking back to the early part of the last decade, the retail offer from Charles Kennedy’s Liberal Democrats was built on a higher top rate of taxation, opposition to the Iraq War, council tax reform, and yes, a repeal of New Labour’s tuition fee policy. Designed to appeal to those who had abandoned Labour, the party built a coalition of support, particularly in university constituencies across Britain. And despite advances made, the party should have done much better in the 2005 General Election.

Yet as YouthSight’s analysis of student voting intentions reveals – the drop in student support for the party over the last four years is striking. Support was approaching 50% in 2010, but is now languishing below 10%.

It is unlikely that these students will come back to the Lib Dems anytime soon. But as we know, there are now even more new full-time undergraduates in England. And more from ‘non-traditional’ backgrounds.

The other policy

To his credit, Nick Clegg has long-focused on social mobility. It has perhaps been the one positive leitmotif of Clegg’s pan-governmental role – from the pupil premium, childcare initiatives; creating a youth contract through to higher education.

Perhaps more damaging for the Coalition’s number one priority – economic recovery and long-term growth – has been the decline in part-time student numbers in England.

The Lib Dems were eager to trumpet the new equity for part-time students in the system – it was a manifesto pledge. As has been pointed out on this site, it is part-time and mature students who have lost out in this system. And with such a high proportion of the future workforce already in the labour market, we quickly need to address the issue of re-skilling and improving life-long learning.

Indeed, the commitment on part-time fees and funding was the pre-election red line on higher education, if we are to believe negotiation documents that have since emerged. It was well-known that those at the top of the party, and who became responsible for the coalition negotiations, were less keen on the full-time tuition fees pledge. For many in the party it is the alleged cynicism of this position, rather than the compromise, that cuts deep.

We’ve heard a lot in the last few days about UKIP being a ‘one man band’. However the same accusation could be levelled at the Lib Dems in the run up to the European and Council elections this week.

The effort and weight of the campaign seemed to rest solely on Nick Clegg’s shoulders. It has been a recurring theme during the last four years. As admirable as it is that the leader has sought to emulate the Blair masochism strategy, he shouldn’t have to do it all by himself.

Especially as higher education in England is the responsibility of one of his ministers, Vince Cable.

The Cable factor

As a former cabinet colleague and leadership candidate wrote at the weekend, Vince Cable may be the most likely caretaker leader should Nick Clegg leave his post, but he would be “be unable to sidestep criticism on student tuition fees, which were his ministerial responsibility”.

Clegg still talks up widening access to higher education, saying recently “if a degree is what you want, you can still have it…  we’ve removed the arbitrary cap on the number of university places available so as many people who want to go, can.”

However Vince Cable has a slightly different position. As an analysis of his most recent HE speech demonstrates, he is a proponent of more specialised offers and institutions with a “clear purpose”.

Indeed, he has been sceptical of the received wisdom about the benefits of increasing the numbers who attend university.  His first major speech in government on HE talked of the “diminishing returns in pushing more and more students through university”.

Would a Cable-led party finally allow the Lib Dems to stop being “sorry, so so sorry”? It seems unlikely. The general population may not know that Vince is in charge of higher education policy, but should Labour stick to their £6k fees policy in 2015, it is unlikely they will miss an opportunity to point out the Business Secretary’s record on this policy to date.

In the wake of the recent elections, the media is enjoying the proxy war now seemingly being fought between Cable’s outriders and those loyal to the leadership over Nick Clegg’s future. With the self-identifying ‘left’ of the party making much of the running on a potential leadership challenge, it begs the question: do they have a secret winning narrative that explains the Clegg & Cable higher education reforms?

It is an inconvenient truth that there are no ‘clean hands’ in the cabinet on tuition fees. The positive, progressive arguments have been made, and have to continue, whoever occupies the leader’s hot seat.

Looking ahead

The Lib Dems already have their English higher education policy platform in place for the 2015 General Election, thanks to agreement at their conference last autumn. They preempted the Chancellor by calling for the lifting of the student numbers cap, but will also merge HEFCE, QAA and OFFA, have committed to a further review of funding and finance, universal loans for post-graduate students, and further investment in bursaries.

And lastly, as this map of student fees across the EU shows, England isn’t swimming in the European mainstream. The former education minister in Wales, Leighton Andrews, once described it as “English exceptionalism”. And that might just annoy the Deputy Prime Minister more than anything – against all his instincts, he’s leading a government that makes England less like the rest of Europe every day.

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