'Oh, so that's who Richard Morris is..." Lord Hattersley on The Daily Politics

'An influential activist' - The Guardian

'Iain Dale, without the self loathing' - Matthew Fox in The New Statesman

You are a tinker...' - Tim Farron

Wednesday 1 February 2012

If tuition fees work, but keep us out of government for 80 years, is that a price worth paying?

Here’s what I’m pondering.

The application figures for Universities are out and you can make the tuition fee ‘effect’ argument either way.

You can say that applications are down overall 8 %, nearly 9% in England. In contrast, in Scotland where there are no tuition fees, applications are down just 1.7%. Applications from mature students are down even more – and of course, students applying for an ‘equivalent’ degree to one they already own have to pay up front under the new regime. So the trebling of tuition fees has clearly put people off.

Or you can make the opposite argument. You can say that comparing applications to the last 2 years is a false premise because they were record years, and when you compare applications to a more normal year, like 2009, applications overall are actually up. What’s more, applications from students in the poorest 20% of household income are pretty flat, while applications in the highest 20% are down far more.  So actually the new regime is not only keeping poor students applying, but is actually promoting social mobility. Great work from Stephen Tall on this.

So let’s ask ourselves, a different question. Let’s presume for a moment that the new tuition fees regime has had a positive effect rather than a negative effect.

If that were to be the case, does that justify the shredding of our reputation and our current standing in the polls, in order to promote social mobility. If the price of devising a better scheme than existed before, which allows a better mix of society to benefit from tertiary education,  is to be labeled as liars who can’t be trusted– then is that a price worth paying?

The top line, off the cuff answer is probably yes.

But then think about it.

Supposing we never get the credit for those reforms, suffering only the reputation hit, saying one thing to get elected and another as soon as we’re in power.

Supposing we get hit in the elections. That Lib Dem councilors lose their posts all over the country, and we see Tory costs cutters or incompetent Labour spendthrifts making people’s lives worse, not better.

Supposing we lose badly in Europe and see the Eurosceptic right take our seats in Brussels

Supposing we get hammered at the next general election – hit so badly that we don’t form another coalition but instead find ourselves once again on the margins of politics for a generation. No more Lib Dem policies in government for another 80 years.

All because we agreed to treble tuition fees instead of devising a graduate tax.

I'm not saying that it will happen. But if there was a general election tomorrow - well, that could well happen.

Is that then, a price worth paying?

It’s a bit of a thought. Isn’t it?


  1. All good points, Richard. Of course the major problem for the Lib Dems is not the policy itself (when polled, the public are pretty evenly divided on whether it's a good thing) but the U-turn. In one sense this is grossly unfair: Labour U-turned twice on fees ('98 and '03) while actually having a huge Commons majority without suffering the same electoral consequences as we did. But trust is more of a USP for the Lib Dems than Labour.

    (Though tbh I suspect the boundary review will be a bigger threat to Lib Dem seats in 2015 than our policy on fees.)

  2. ah yes, exactly. I was trying to neutralise the policy effect and assess the reputation issue. as with Labour, its interesting that the Tories can also u turn all they want without damaging their reputation - it's the Gingrich affect - no matter what they do, it's what they 'expect ' of them.

    Boundary commission is prob also bad news. as would be Scottish independence. I should do a worst worst case scenario post at some point. but i think i'd find it too depressing...

  3. Also, Scottish LibDems are trying to punish Salmond for u-turning on a pledge to protect colleges in particular college places with a majority and erm... we are having no luck. If we had half a decent journalistic team as down south, Salmond would be hated every bit as Clegg is.

    So unfair.

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. ha, edited my own comment

    Most of the great PR stuff down here seemed to get done by mark Pack and Stephen! They did a great job

  6. The major mistake was to support ie vote for the tuition fees policy when in Gvt, when the coalition agreement no less permitted abstention by Liberal Democrat MPs on the issue. That would still have been awkward, but nothing like the reaction we are now stuck with. We could have argued that we had improved the final policy from the Browne proposals through our position within the Coalition. Any of this is now drowned out by the 'U turn' accusation.

    All we can do now is advocate and promote our policies within the Coalition -- Nick's recent push on accelerating tax cuts for the lower paid is a good example of what we need to do -- in the hope that come 2015 we will be seen as having been a positive -- and principled -- Coalition partner. This could happen; latest poll ratings seem to be in traditionally familiar territory rather than single figures; but our tuition fees policy has made that a much harder hill to climb.

  7. Yes, never understood why we didn't abstain. am told that 'we wouldn't have won the concessions we did without agreeing to vote for' but I don't buy this at all i'm afraid.

    Intersting piece on LDV on this today http://www.libdemvoice.org/pack-tall-debate-tuition-fees-lib-dem-party-policy-26903.html

  8. Good article Richard. The difference with us is that we were a "new kid on the block" in May 2010, especially with young people. So, yes, we may have U turned as much (or less) than any other party but we did it, and did it so quickly, after setting ourselves up as being different, "no more broken promises" etc. It's unfair perhaps, especially as many students didn't actually vote, but perception is reality for this cohort of young people.

    The other point is that it is not just the voters of tomorrow we have put off but their parents. It appears that the "middle classes", for want of a better categorization, have been put off applying and if you take Martin Lewis' analysis they are right. Earn anout £40/- a year as a graduate and you sre in the worst place in terms of paying the loan back. Personally I feel very let down by it as an activist although we have to move forward and are getting on the front foot for the GLA election here in London.

    However overall I fear that you are right in saying that the damage done in the wider sense to us, the LD's, and the country, is not worth the apparant current muted impact these fees changes have made.

  9. The problem is we were too good before the election! We convinced an apathetic voting public that there was an alternative to the lying trough swilling politicians of the other parties.
    We let them down, worse these voters were the idealistic part of the population which we have now turned into either Lib-Dem haters or the politically apathetic The first group have deserted to the greens the second will vote for whoever the papers tell them to, if at all.

    As far as tuition fees are concerned, there is no problem yet as nobody is paying anything. That is the problem with debt! My concern is when these people start receiving their student debt statements every six months for the majority of their lives as they watch the figure rolling upwards faster than their earnings. Is this going to make them an entrepreneur or scared and risk averse. Only then will we know if the policy has worked for the country.

  10. I too have agonised over the issue. I have now concluded a) the big factor about the U-turn is that we never got elected - i.e. only polled 25% and therefore could not put this policy into place and b) what we have is de-facto a graduate tax. Think of it as a graduate tax, dependent on income, and it seems a lot easier to swallow. Plus, of course, the Browne report was set up by Labour who would have had to increase tuition fees in any case.

  11. Ah yes, I agree it is a grad tax http://aviewfromhamcommon.blogspot.com/2011/09/if-it-looks-like-duck-and-quacks-like.html which begs the question, why didn't we call it that...

  12. It cannot be called a tax because it isn't one. If you are rich enough to be able to pay upfront you pay nothing. Actually a tax that you don't pay if you are rich enough to avoid? Yes I guess you can call it a tax.

  13. Actually, I think you cannot pay upfront at all - unless you are an overseas student or a student doing an equivalent degree to one you already hold, in which case you are ineligible for assistance anyway.

  14. It's worth repeating that under the new system, no-one will pay more per month than they would pay under the current regime. Eg someone who is repaying under the current regime at £100 per month would only be paying about £50 per month under the new system, albeit over a longer timescale. It seems that a lot of people still haven't grasped this important fact. And yes, it a graduate tax, in all but name, with graduates who earn more paying more, because of the increasing rate of interest charges. And, of course, no-one pays anything until they graduate and until they earn over £21,000, and if they become unemployed or their pay drops below £21k, the repayments stop.

  15. I think the focus of the article highlights the issue:

    *Should we have held the country to ransom over the issue of Tuition fees?

    We too often forget the other things that we have achieved in government. So as ever in politics it will be remembered for our failings, not the things we accomplished.

  16. Hi Richard, I'm sorry but you are wrong. You can pay upfront as a UK student for any degree. In fact the universities are bending over backwards, the one's I have approached are offering yearly or termly payment structures. This is why it is not a Tax!

  17. Unknown above - Can you send me some links - i'd like to check this out some more.

  18. Hi Richard,

    Paragraph 3 of the attached link


    Or just give you local Uni a call. Thats what I did.

    The University does not care where the money is comming from. In fact some give a discount for paying the whole lot upfront.


    If we start calling it a tax we will fall into another trap and it would be another disaster. Now if we were to introduce a real graduate tax, or go to the next election proposing one, that would be different.

    Dave W (Sorry don't know how to work these name things!)

  19. Thanks Dave, will do some digging....

  20. I was most certainly put off from applying. So much so in fact, that I didn't bother in the end.

    I applied to do an online HND learning course. I applied through BrightonSBM: http://www.brightonsbm.com/

    According to my maths I will save about £8k over the three years I would have gone to university.