The Conservatives abandoned their opposition to tuition fees in 2005. The Lib Dem leadership has moved from being against any graduate contribution to being in favour of graduates meeting all the cost of their degree. They held the former position for eight years and the latter since receiving ministerial salaries.
For Labour the question is how we can best ensure that we have properly funded universities, which are so important to the quality of our society as well as our economy. We do not accept that the State should withdraw funding for arts, humanities and social science or that annual fees of £9,000 are reasonable. And we do not accept that graduate payments should replace rather than enhance the contribution made by the State. Make no mistake, £9,000 a year will become standard.
Ed Miliband, John Denham and I are working to construct a fair system that restores the principles we established in the 2004 Act. We are now seeing how casually the variable fees system can be distorted with such damaging effects. It is in these circumstances that there is a strong case for a graduate tax, which may offer a fairer way of sharing costs between individuals and government.
Johnson is right that any claim that the government's proposals to reform university funding essentially continue the approach of the previous government is misleading.
That can be seen in both the proposals themselves, and in their inability to maintain the support of non-partisan expert voices who had backed the earlier approach.
Peter Lampl of the Sutton Trust exemplifies the point in opposing the government's proposals.
Having supported the principle of graduate contributions in fees to increase funding, access and social mobility, the Trust's evidence suggests the Coalition's proposals will hit social mobility, in a way which previous reforms did not, writing for Comment is Free:
Over the last few years, the Sutton Trust has carried out an annual survey of the university aspirations of about 2,500 young students in comprehensive schools. June's survey showed that record numbers – about 80% – were expecting to apply to university. However the study also showed that if fees rose to £7,000 or above, that figure would dwindle to 45%. And if fees rose higher, as is now expected at many universities, it would decline still further to just over one quarter.
Potential students may not actually desert higher education in such droves, but there is no doubt that such a significant increase in tuition costs would be a serious deterrent for those from non-privileged backgrounds. These are the students I have made it my life's work to help ever since, in the 1990s, I visited my old college at Oxford and found it dominated by those from well-off homes. That is why I feel so strongly about this issue: it is a scandal that the potential of so many young people is being wasted.
Lampl calls for a cap of £5000.
So what's the difference?
Just about all advocacy about higher student contributions (whether through fees or a graduate tax) was based on these premises.
1. Universities will need more money, in particular to compete with their global peers.
2. There are limits to how far more funding can be found through general taxation – and this may not be the highest priority from a point of view of more equal life chances, compared to earlier intervention.
3. It is right that the state should meet the bulk of the costs. But students should contribute a proportion of the costs, not least because they will benefit, but that this should be done in a way which does not deter poorer students from attending university.
Once, after 2005, the Conservatives ditched their opposition to tuition fees - which were founded in traditional "more will mean worse" objections to expanding university access and participation, versions of these arguments which had widespread support from almost everybody.
Except the Liberal Democrats, who mainly rejected point (2), and who therefore benefitted electorally from giving this issue the highest possible profile in their 2005 and 2010 General Election campaigns (though in private, the LibDem leadership and party spokesman had long before come around to accepting the arguments that they were campaigning against, as Stephen Williams MP has candidly set out).
Graduate tax versus graduate contribution?
There is a debate about the relative merits of various types of "graduate tax", loan repayments and other forms of graduate contribution.
This is a significant policy issue, but a relatively second order one: it is a debate between people who accepted points (1) and (2) about what the fairest approach to point (3) is.
And the boundaries between different types of graduate contribution scheme are blurred, once top-up fees were (rightly) abolished, for full-time students at least, as I noted in a piece on this back in 2004, ahead of the vote.
why didn't the government call this a graduate tax in the first place? They are proposing, in essence, an individually hypothecated graduate tax, with all student contributions coming after graduation and through the tax system once the earning threshold has been passed. In other countries, such as Australia, they would call that a graduate tax.
Much commentary about university funding misses several central points as to why this government's proposals are not a continuity measure from those of the previous government.
The argument that graduates should contribute something has mutated into the claim that they should bear all of the tuition costs, outside science subjects.
That problem was well captured in ConservativeHome offering a no doubt unintentionally misleading summary of a David Cameron piece in the Standard.
David Cameron writes a defence of higher tuition fees in tonight's London Evening Standard. He says:
1. further public subsidy of higher education is unaffordable;
2. more investment in higher education is vital for future British competitiveness;
3. many of the lowest-paid graduates will pay less under Coalition plans than under the existing Labour regime.
David Cameron didn't argue for point (2) in his piece - students to get the facts straight - because that is no longer his policy, though he did want to sound as if he was making the same argument by using similar language about global competition.
He has ditched the claim that universities need higher funding to be world-class. He is happy that they can continue to be world-class with the funding they have now.
He does say "these reforms are vital to maintaining a world-class higher education system in this country" - but he is offering reform to keep funding the same, not to increase it.
He now argues that he has to cut 80% of public funding from university teaching - and therefore needs much larger student contributions. (This is on the basis that universities "can't be exempt" from cuts, though choosing this area for such deep cuts is clearly a discretionary policy choice).
Cameron tells us the reforms will improve quality.
These reforms are going to drive up the quality of higher education, because when more funding flows directly from the student rather than from government, universities will be pressured to up their game in order to attract more students — improving teaching quality, offering real value for money and offering better student support.
This is not because there will be more money - because they won't - but because he beleives that a more market-based system will in itself improve universities.
Cameron is confident they will be much better at being universities and serving students when they base their decisions on market signals, the most important of which will be offering the courses will have the highest return from what students are prepared to pay for it.
It is a different argument. It should be considered on its own merits, not on a misleading claim to be continuing the previous policy.