NUS funding model offers serious lifeline to the Lib Dems to think again

The Liberal Democrats have got themselves in quite a mess on higher education funding. Today, we have the bizarre spectacle of the Vince Cable pulling out (on “police advice”) of a planned speech at Oxford University because students planned to protest his Government's plans to at least double tuition fees.

Our guest writer is Wes Streeting, former president of the National Union of Students (2008-10) and currently chief executive of the Helena Kennedy Foundation, an educational charity that promotes widening participation and social mobility; Wes is writing in a personal capacity

The Liberal Democrats have got themselves in quite a mess on higher education funding. Today, we have the bizarre spectacle of the Vince Cable pulling out (on “police advice”) of a planned speech at Oxford University because students planned to protest his Government’s plans to at least double tuition fees. Where the Liberal Democrats would have once organised such protests, now they run and hide from them.

Yesterday in the House of Lords debate on the Browne Review, Baroness Kennedy said:

“I am concerned that we will see the arrival of Tina. Noble Lords may wonder who she is. Tina is the mantra that we hear too often nowadays: there is no alternative.”

Tina has arrived. At Deputy Prime Minister’s Questions this week, Nick Clegg claimed that the Government has looked “very carefully” at the case for a graduate tax, saying:

“…it has also been proposed by the National Union of Students – but it is not workable and it is not fair.”

Clegg, and his Liberal Democrat colleagues, ought to look a bit closer at this issue. Since the publication of the Browne Review the political debate has been allowed to polarise between proposals of the Browne Committee and a pure graduate tax. This has not occurred by chance; it was the only alternative considered and addressed by the Browne Review.

The ‘pure graduate tax’ option is also a complete straw man. I have yet to hear a single commentator or stakeholder recommend a pure graduate tax. It has certainly never been proposed by NUS. There is no evidence that the Browne Review, or the Government, has given the full range of alternatives due consideration.

The NUS model, or some variant on it, could be a serious lifeline for the Liberal Democrats. It differs from the pure graduate tax in a number of important ways. For example, it is time limited for 15 years, the revenues would be held in an independent trust to ensure the revenue reaches universities and don’t end up being diverted by the Treasury. Unlike the Browne proposals, it would eliminate the concept of tuition fees, debt linked to fees and would generate savings for the Treasury in the longer term.

Some Responsibility for this one-sided debate should rest with the Labour opposition. Labour’s message has been muddied by dissent within the Shadow Cabinet from those who were previously only too happy to accept fuhrerprizip on higher education funding. Ed Miliband’s platform was in support of the graduate tax principle and he should continue this break from the past.

There are two real alternatives available to the Liberal Democrats; they can demonstrate the value of their presence in the coalition by changing the direction of current policy, or their ministers can abstain while backbenchers vote against. There is nothing in the coalition agreement that binds the Lib Dems to supporting higher fees. If they do it will be by choice and will be the ultimate betrayal of students and their own values.

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