Tuition fees Yorkshire Post 12 December 2010
There is a cartoon by the most famous World War I cartoonist, Bruce Bairsnworthy , which shows two British Tommies, covered in mud and grime, holding onto their helmets while sheltering in a shell crater. The hole is full of water and there explosions on all sides and shells falling all round. One Tommy turns to the other and says “If you know of a better ‘ole – get to it!”
The two Parties in our coalition Government must feel a little like that as the House of Lords today does what the Commons did last week and debate the issue of tuition fees the second week.
Things are very tough – especially for my colleagues in the Lib Dem. But there ain’t no better ‘ole to be in. Everywhere else is worse than where they are now.
There are two central questions which need to be answered in this debate.
The first is one primarily it seems for the Liberal Democrats. Why have we changed (some people, especially some students, would use a stronger word such as “betrayed”) the policy we stood on in the Election? I have to say this is a little unfair, since every Party has changed the tuition fees policy they stood on at the Election. The Tories went into the election opposed to tuition fees and are now in favour because of the economic crisis. The Lib Dems did the same and now find they have to change because of the coalition. And Labour went into the last election in favour of fees and now oppose them because of the opportunities this offers to bet up on the Government.
But then politics isn’t fair, so it’s the Lib Dems who have to answer for their u turn, not the others. I think this is probably so because our MP’s and Leader were seen signing those pledges and the point is somehow made that if its in the manifesto, that’s one thing, but a personal pledge is something different – something special. I think this is a bit Jesuitical. If its in your manifesto and someone asks you to sign a pledge saying the same thing, how can you say no. Whether it was right for it to be in the Lib Dem manifesto, of course is a different point – but then apply that to the other Parties who have also done u turns, in the same way. I don’t see people protesting about Labour’s “betrayal” but if breaking your word is the sin that’s getting people upset then surely this should apply to them, too?
The second point to make is that Labour abandoned their manifesto support for tuition fees, not because they needed to reach a compromise with another party in order to provide the country with strong government at a time of crisis. Labour didn’t want to work with anyone else if they couldn’t govern alone. They preferred to run from their responsibility to clean up the mess they had created. No, they changed their election stance on tuition fees, not for reasons of national interest, but for reasons of opportunism.
The promise Lib Dems made at the election was “If we become the Government, we will get rid of tuition fees”. But we are not the government. We have a coalition Government. And that means two Parties working together in the national interest. And that means compromising with each there. In a Coalition neither Party gets everything it wants. They both have the chance to put into operation some of the policies they like and some they don’t. How could it be otherwise? Both can honour some of their promises, but at the price of giving up others.
And if that’s not a price you are prepared to pay, then forget partnership politics. Forget, too a strong Government with a clear majority at a time of economic crisis. Forget a lot of other things as well. Like economic stability; low interest and mortgage rates; public expenditure choices made by an accountable Government, rather than unaccountable markets. And jobs – lots and lots of jobs.
The truth is that thanks to the mess the last Government made, we don’t have any choice now. We have to take drastic action to start living within our means. And that includes our Universities too. Every other public service is getting a cut of 25%. If they don’t bear their share, the pain for everyone else will have to be greater.
That leaves us with a choice. Either cuts which will ruin our Universities for ever, or ask students who will benefit in later life to pay something back when they do.
I am clear which f those two choices is in the nations interest.
Which leave the final question.
Are the Government’s proposals for tuition fees fair.
I do not condemn people who demonstrate in support of their views. I’ve done a bit of that myself in my time. And I suspect that demonstrating students condemn the violence we have seen quite as much as everyone else. Nevertheless I do wonder whether all those demonstrating on the streets of our cities (and no doubt we will see them outside Parliament again tonight) know the actual details of what they are demonstrating against.
And if they do, then I have to ask why didn’t they demonstrate against Labour’s tuition fee scheme that we have at present? Because the new ones are far, far better. Like the current scheme, no-one will have to pay up front to go to university. They only pay afterwards IF their salary is more than £21,000 a year (£6,000 above the £15,000 which is the repayment threshold at the moment). And even then when they do pay, they will pay less – about a half less – than they do at present. And unlike at present the richest will pay most and the poorest least, which is not the case at the moment. And part time students, who pay now will not pay at all. And those from the very poorest families will get up to two years without any fee charges.
I understand about the issue of debt. And I don’t like it either. And I know its tough. But then, if we are going to get out of the mess we are in, it’s going to be tough on us all. And students, who have more to gain than most by pulling this country out of the dangerous place we are in now can’t be an exception to that.
I agree, this ‘ole ain’t comfortable. But I don’t know of a better – or a fairer – one to go to.