Will Lib Dems keep their pledge to oppose tuition fees rise?

The dust has barely settled on the new Cabinet appointments, and today the Russell Group of universities has advocated the removal of the cap on student fees.

The dust has barely settled on the new Cabinet appointments, and today the elite Russell Group of universities has advocated the removal of the cap on student fees – currently £3,225 a year – which would mean many students leaving university with mortgage-style debts in excess of £40,000. Not only would this fully expose students and their families to the huge risks and the potential calamities of the market, but it would leave thousands of potential students facing the choice of where to study not on where is best for them, but rather how much debt they are prepared to take on.

With any vote in the Commons now relying on consensus beyond the Conservative Party in order to be passed, attempting to raise fees in this Parliament would now appear to be political suicide. There is no public support for fees to rise, and polling in the run up to the general election showed 9 out of 10 people opposed any increase in fees.

Five hundred Liberal Democrat candidates – including all five Lib Dems in the coalition Cabinet: Nick Clegg, Chris Huhne, Danny Alexander, David Laws and Vince Cable – tapped into this deep public concern by signing NUS’s Vote for Students pledge:

“To vote against any increase in fees and to pressure the government to introduce a fairer alternative.”

Sunday’s special conference in Birmingham agreed amendments to the coalition agreement that would allow their 57 MPs to honour their pledges to their constituents, therefore proving an insurmountable obstacle should the Conservatives try and raise fees.

Almost 100 Labour MPs have also signed NUS’s pledge, including Jon Cruddas, Chuka Umunna, Phil Woolas, Gisela Stuart, Karen Buck and Joan Ruddock. Others such as potential leadership contender Ed Balls are proposing a rethink on student fees in light of the economic climate students currently face, but also in light of the Top Up fee debate in 2006 being regarded as one of the lowest points of the Blair/Brown era. Labour leadership candidates would be well placed acknowledging this and putting forward an alternative direction of travel.

It is clear to us, that Labour must also consider its position on student finance and university funding more broadly and we will be asking all MPs to discuss with us our costed proposals for a sophisticated graduate tax, which would be a fairer and more sustainable alternative to the current system.

The proposals from the Russell Group would be a nightmare outcome for the Funding Review and former BP chief executive Lord Browne, who is currently heading this review should rule them out. These proposals neglect to acknowledge that universities have failed to improve the quality of what they offer despite fees trebling in 2006, with student satisfaction actually falling amongst graduates who paid three times what their predecessors paid.

The Russell Group’s calls to make students pick up the bill and pay more for less or the same is brazenly opportunistic but also politically naive. The reality is that the balance of the new Parliament will require sensible debate and consensus if changes are to be made to higher education and student funding.

It is disappointing and short-sighted of the Russell Group to pretend that the only way to pay for universities’ funding shortcomings it to do down higher education and talk of crisis in order to excuse foisting their nightmare solution upon us. Universities are an engine both of social mobility and economic recovery. They are a national asset that provide huge opportunities to people. It is vital to think carefully about how to fairly and sustainably fund our higher education and our students.‬

Politically fees has always been a contentious issue, the delicate balance in the Commons makes this more of a hot potato than ever before. Students aren’t prepared to be the easy target once again, so politicians need to ensure any decision they take has our support, and not our opposition.

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27 Responses to “Will Lib Dems keep their pledge to oppose tuition fees rise?”

  1. Chris Wiggin

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  2. Jamie Potter

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  4. Andrew Bradley

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  5. Nikki Jayne Guest

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  6. House Of Twits

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  7. NUS Student Media

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  8. NUS Higher Education

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  9. Aaron Porter

    My article for: RT @leftfootfwd Will Lib Dems keep their pledge to oppose tuition fees rise? http://bit.ly/999Bxv

  10. Lizzie Emily Birrell

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  11. UnionofUEAStudents

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  12. NUS Student Media

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  13. Paul Douglas

    RT @leftfootfwd: Will Lib Dems keep their pledge to oppose tuition fees rise? http://bit.ly/999Bxv

  14. Tom White

    All very lovely, but when the government cuts higher education funding, perhaps you can tell me where the extra money should come from? Of should universities just cut courses?

  15. Mr. Sensible

    Tom, if univercities are so broke, why are the Vice Chancellors still being paid so much?

    If their top brass want students to share the pain they should lead by example and take a volontary pay cut.

  16. MaryW

    Could we have some more details on how the graduate tax would work please Aaron? There are potential problems with such a scheme too: a guaranteed extra tax in your 30s/40s is not exactly an incentive to apply to university either! There is no perfect solution, but at least the Russell Group’s proposal seems (if I’m reading it right) to be saying the government and unis would need to balance the increase in fees with bursaries that ensure people are not put off attending. How would this problem – which is a problem of perception as well as reality – be resolved with a graduate tax?

    As for the market, there’s already one, because employers differentiate between the value of different degrees, and the current system therefore means those who get the most benefit pay the same as those who get the least. We’re already in a deeply unfair situation.

    Of course the VCs are paid too much and universities could save money by being more efficient, but that’s not going to cover the whole problem, or be a long-term solution. (Though the unis should probably work out that it would help any argument they wanted to make…)

  17. Tom White

    Perfectly reasonable, Mr. Sensible – but that’s not going to cover the amount of money we’re talking about here… And academics are in general relatively badly paid.

  18. Academic

    As an academic I could not be more in of tuition fee rises. Tom White is right. There is no other way of keeping Britain’s universities competitive in the world with a public that will have no appetite for increasing university funding through taxes. It’s true that senior university administrator’s fees should be cut, but since most British academics get paid less than high school teachers, fee raises are the only answer.

  19. Politics Summary: Wednesday, May 19th | Left Foot Forward

    […] times in the mid-1990s. The president-elect of the National Union of Students wrote yesterday for Left Foot Forward about the Lib Dems election pledge to “vote against any increase in fees and to pressure the […]

  20. tomtiddler

    free or subsidised higher education was always just another method by which the middle classes rob the poor. the very idea that a plumber should subsidise someone on a media studies course – who by doing that course will earn several hundreds of thousands extra over their life – is utterly insane. there is no justification for it. a higher education is worth a lot. let those who benefit pay for it. as long as the money is in the form of a loan then no-one is unable to take part if they wish

  21. tomtiddler

    @Aaron Porter

    40k is not a mortgage style debt. I imagine you bought your house back in the 1970s

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