Tuesday 12 October 2010

What about a "new politics" approach to university finance?

"Everybody has to compromise because the truth is that we all want the same thing", says Prime Minister David Cameron of the tuition fees issue, in a comment surely meriting the return of this blog's Steve Hilton Award for Progressive Gobbldedegook.


Rather more plain speaking was the NUS pledge which every LibDem MP from the leader and shadow Chancellor down chose to personally and prominently sign.

I pledge TO VOTE AGAINST ANY INCREASE IN FEES in the next Parliament and to pressure the government to introduce A FAIRER ALTERNATIVE

This may have been unwise, but the party leadership could hardly claim to have been unaware of either the fiscal situation, or that their party's highest ambition would be a hung Parliament in which they held the balance of power, when the LibDem leadership and every MP decided there was electoral adva


The pledge leaves no wriggle-room: Liberal Democrat MPs have given a cast iron commitment to vote against this recommendation of the Browne review, published this morning, were it to be adopted by the government.

The current cap on fees of £3,290 per year will be removed, allowing universities to put quality first and charge accordingly. A tapered levy on institutions charging more than £6,000 per year will ensure that those which charge the most contribute more to supporting the poorest students. In addition, universities that wish to charge more will be required to demonstrate to the regulator and to their students both improved standards of teaching and fair admission.


The Coalition Agreeement is curious in covering this subject.

If the response of the Government to Lord Browne's report is one that Liberal Democrats can not accept, then arrangements will be made to enable Liberal Democrat MPs to abstain in any vote.

This doesn't make much sense. For it squarely contradicts every claim that this is a genuine Coalition government, rather than a Tory government with a LibDem appendage.

If this was a partnership government then, if the response of the Conservative party to Lord Browne's report is one that Liberal Democrats can not accept, then the Coalition government does not have a policy unless and until that deadlock is broken.

If the LibDems had already in effect agreed to gift the Conservative Party - through abstention - a majority that they did not win in order to lift the fees cap, then they have done so in a secret pact as a side agreeement to the Coalition Agreement. That may be a plausible implication of what was published, but it is not what LibDem MPs or the party voted on when agreeing the Coalition.

The LibDem Cabinet members are now acting exactly as they would if there were such a secret deal in place, though it is equally possible that they have simply (once again) changed their minds about a major issue and come to see the wisdom of the Conservatives.

Vince Cable - having been for something sounding very like a graduate tax on July 15th before he was against it this weekend - now regarding his own party's position as only "superficially attractive" and "unfair".

He was trying to sell the contours of a possible deal to his MPs last night. The Guardian this morning reports that as many as 30 LibDem MPs are indicating that they are willing to vote against variable fees and the removal of the cap, in accordance with the promises they made, though it remains to be seen how far that spirit will be sustained.

Stephen Williams, Lib Dem MP for Bristol West and a former shadow universities minister, said he opposed creating a market in higher education. "I would find it very, very tough to support lifting fees and will be looking for the government to reject that proposal, but I am open-minded to … other ways to make graduates pay such as a graduate tax."

He said it was unlikely that he would abstain from voting on the issue."I don't think you please anyone by doing that. I don't want the new government to make it harder for people to make choices about where they study and what they study."

Will they be steamrollered by their Ministerial team signing up to "Coalition" policy, not in the agreement, even if a majority of LibDem MPs were to indicate they are firmly opposed before the government policy is set?

In a hung Parliament - where the government does not yet have a policy - the alternative opportunity is for Parliamentary scrutiny and debate over what approach to the issue might command a broad consensus. Labour's new leader Ed Miliband will be interested in pursuing this approach, but it remains to be seen whether the necessary spirit of pluralism will prevail elsewhere.

You could even call it the New Politics. Let us be hopeful for now. But it might be advisable not to hold your breath.

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