Whither (or wither) the Lib Dems?

The Liberal Democrats kick off the party conference season in Glasgow next week. Will they develop a firm (and different?) position on higher education as the 2015 General Election approaches? Even after a policy review headed up by Baroness Brinton and a business department led by Vince Cable, their position is still very hard to predict. In a first of a series covering each main party's annual conference, Andy Westwood looks at the state of the Lib Dems through an HE lens.

The Liberal Democrats kick off the party conference season in Glasgow next week. Will they develop a firm (and different?) position on higher education as the 2015 General Election approaches? Even after a policy review headed up by Baroness Brinton and a business department led by Vince Cable, their position is still very hard to predict.

It is still an official party position that a Liberal Democrat government would abolish tuition fees. Simon Hughes, Tim Farron and others have frequently reminded us of this. That was the 2010 manifesto commitment and part of the promise to students as many candidates signed pledges not to vote to increase fees. But now an updated proposition is being made to the party membership to accept the new tuition fee and repayment regime partly authored and delivered by them as Coalition partners in 2010/11.

But this contradiction shows little sign of resolution and the membership debate will provide an intriguing opening to conference season. In this week’s Times – a ‘well-placed Lib Dem source’ said party members were unlikely to disagree with the idea that ‘in principle, when austerity permits, we still support the idea of free tuition’. The source added: ‘the fact we had to compromise in government does not change our view of what the ideal position would be.’

Given that Vince Cable – perhaps the most popular Lib Dem minister of all – is proposing the more pragmatic resolution of accepting the current model as the best policy solution, this does continue to look odd. Unlike the rumours circulating around the future of David Willetts – his ministerial colleague at BIS, there is little likelihood of a reshuffle for Cable – he will almost certainly complete a full five years as Secretary of State at BIS. This should make the Lib Dem manifesto more likely to include a commitment to current models for funding undergraduate tuition (as well as that for science and research).

But in truth higher education hasn’t seen that much of Vince – he seemed to lose interest in direct relations with the sector shortly after the reforms in 2010/11 and a difficult speech at a HEFCE conference at Aston University. Since then and perhaps most significant for their manifesto approach, has been his much greater interest in universities and their role in delivering a more active industrial strategy.

One area where Vince Cable and the Lib Dems definitely deserve credit from the sector – and which is likely to make it into their manifesto – is a more staunch defence of UK universities recruiting students from outside the EU. Cable has continually made HE’s case against Theresa May and the Home Office and a proposal for removing students from the migration statistics is on the table. This does set out a distinct Lib Dem commitment that won’t feature in other manifestos where immigration is a much more toxic issue. Though ironically, this may not do any of the parties any good at the ballot box.

Student support for the Lib Dem fees position (together with support for their anti Iraq war stance) served them in good stead in many constituencies in 2005 and 2010. But given the double whammy of support for £9k fees and for possible military intervention in Syria (even though a few in student dominated marginals like Cambridge and Manchester abstained or voted against one or the other) new positions may wipe out more recent support.

As with the Conservatives and with Labour there may be some micro level policy recommendations – and social mobility, access, bursaries and some tinkering with the landscape of agencies and quangos is likely. But overall, there appears to be little likelihood of any major dividing lines between them and other parties over headline issues (by this I mean the policies that might make it into a doorstep conversation, rather than those that will receive huge scrutiny and comment within the HE sector). Certainly not as much as in 2005 or 2010.

Describing themselves as just a junior partner in the government does seem untenable – especially in HE with a leading Lib Dem in charge of the key department for a full five year term. It is much harder to say that policies have been developed to ‘moderate’ a Conservative position. The Lib Dem’s National Scholarship Programme – a political fix offered to those voting for increased fees in 2010 – has already been abandoned. Unlike the Pupil Premium in schools, they won’t be trying to take credit for that as an example of what they’ve been able to achieve as a minority partner in a coalition government.

This time last year Nick Clegg kicked off the Lib Dem party conference with a heavily qualified apology. Not for introducing the new tuition fee system but rather for making a pledge that he wasn’t able to keep. Tactically he wanted to address it, justify his and the Lib Dem position and then quickly move on – though given both this year’s resolution (and the musical rearrangement of his 2012 speech) it hasn’t yet come off. In a strange way this continued the 2005 and 2010 approach of making higher education a totemic issue – albeit for quite different reasons.

But this time around – and certainly by 2015 – I suspect that Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems will be most keen, in contrast to 2005 and 2010, to minimise Higher Education as an electoral issue rather than to maximise it. Given the decreasing number of dividing lines between the major parties, that might just be a feasible position in national live debates and in the national media. But in a series of marginal constituencies and amongst local and national party members, it looks much less likely to be a successful tactic.

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