I put in a FOI request to the DBIS to see if this was true - here's the reply I received..
Dear Mr Morris,
Thank you for your email of 5 September 2011 where you requested:
- Any advice given to Ministers regarding whether the new system of charging fees from students for Higher Education from 2012/2013 could appropriately be described as a graduate tax, or if Ministers were specifically advised that this would be incorrect.
I would be interested in any such documentation between August 2010 and December 2010.
The Department does not hold the specific information which you request. However, the Department does hold information falling outside the timeframe specified which I have attached for your information. The names of civil servants below the Senior Civil Service have been redacted in accordance with Section 40 of the Freedom of Information Act.
(continues with normal legal conditions)
The advice mentioned is a note to Vince Cable from Michael Hipkins of 'Financial Support for Learners' where he notes in paper to Vince titled 'How does a Graduate Tax compare to Current Student Loans' that...
"In some respects, the loan repayment is equivalent to a capped graduate tax (and, presentationally, there is advantage in describing it as such)"
This seemed clear to me. There was no evidence that Vince was told he could not call the new scheme a Capped Graduate Tax - indeed the only evidence the DBIS could find was something giving quite the oppositie advice. Case closed. It was just a massive screw up.
Until I read this, in the Independent Interview with Richard Reeves, departing Director of Strategy to the DPM...
"He is still kicking himself over the university fees debacle which undoubtedly damaged Mr Clegg, for a broken election pledge more than an unpopular policy. Indeed, in a candid farewell interview, Mr Reeves admits he once kicked himself in the shins because of his own role in the debacle. He regrets that the near-trebling of fees was not branded a "capped graduate tax" and that he did not fight harder against the Treasury to ensure it was. "It was stupid; I was a bloody idiot," he now admits"
This seems to say quite the opposite. It sems to say the Treasury did indeed fight to stop the new scheme being branded a graduate tax.
So now I'm confused. Did we really just make a terrible branding mistake? Was my FOI question to the DBIS not clear enough? Or more troubling, was the Treasury telling the Office of the DPM one thing while the Department of Business was being told something quite different?
All in all, it seems a right old buggers muddle.