Perhaps it is because liberalism is an ultimately optimistic philosophy that explains why Liberal Democrats were so up beat at their annual conference this week. Despite dire poll ratings the conference bar was full of cheery activists and senior MPs determined to cling on to their seats.
But there is no denying that the tuition fee u-turn still haunts the party. Nick Clegg alluded to this when the party membership saddled the leadership with a silly airport policy at this year’s conference. Senior figures in the party are determined not to include policies in the manifesto that they do not believe they can implement in Government. Many grass root members, more comfortable in a party of protest than one of Government, still seem keen to take a different approach.
Higher education didn’t feature much during the party conference season. In the lead-up to its conference, the Labour party hinted that it would announce a reduction in tuition fees. But the announcement never came. Perhaps Ed Miliband forgot to mention it. Or perhaps he understands just how expensive it would be. Given the record of all three parties on tuition fees it is also unlikely that any commitment to slash fees would carry much weight with the electorate.
While Liberal Democrats would love to wish tuition fees away, they also have an odd tendency to keep talking about them. Nick Clegg was the only leader to mention tuition fees in his speech. As one party member put it, it’s like the scab that he can’t stop picking. There still seems to be a misguided hope that if the party can explain why they made the decision they did, all would eventually be forgiven. In another speech, Vince Cable, argued that fees had needed to be trebled to protect further education. On the conference fringe, Julian Huppert, a Cambridge MP, (who voted against the rise in fees) voiced a real and legitimate frustration that exists among Lib Dems – those who argued trebling fees would deter students from applying have been proved wrong.
The system they have created is broadly working. University applications are up. Applications from disadvantaged backgrounds are up. And university budgets have not faced the tough budget settlements inflicted on other aspects of the public sector. No one has yet presented a credible alternative which can sit within the wider economic context, puts universities on a sustainable financial footing and ensures students don’t have to pay any fees upfront.
While in Government, Liberal Democrats have also been able to force through a policy which is likely to have a longer term impact on widening participation in future years. The £2.5bn Pupil Premium, money for schools targeted at disadvantaged pupils, will do more in the long-term than any reduction in tuition fees could do.
However, given there are only 7 months until the election, Liberal Democrats are unlikely to win that argument with a sceptical electorate. Even if they do try to forget about tuition fees, NUS is not going to let them. Nicely timed to coincide with start of the Lib Dem conference, the union published a report suggesting the future of many MPs’ careers sits in students’ hands. Whether they will get out and vote (or even register) remains to be seen. And students about to enter a tough employment market may have bigger priorities when they cast their vote.
Vince Cable did make one university-related outburst. He highlighted one of the Government’s central HE policies of bringing more alternative providers into the system (declaration of interest – I work for one of them). But unlike David Willetts, he did not speak of a rising tide that lifts all boats. Instead he asserted that there is a lot of dross. Of course he went on to clarify that some alternative providers are ‘really outstanding’, but it was his dross remark, compounded by saying that the benefits of such institutions are ambiguous, that ultimately grabbed more headlines.
Such comments from the man who has overseen the system for over the last four years are not helpful. They can affect how the entire HE sector is viewed both at home and abroad. While there are important regulatory issues the Government has failed to tackle, it’s an odd way to talk about a key component of one of the UK’s leading export industries.
With comments like that and concerning talk of both cuts and hikes in fee levels being bandied around, perhaps it will be better if our politicians talk less about higher education in what is set to be a long and bitter election campaign.