Lib Dems fail to learn lessons from Scotland on tuition fees

As MPs in Westminster prepare for the most controversial vote of this parliament on the coalition’s plan’s for tuition fees, in Scotland the contrast between the Liberal Democrats now and the Lib Dems in 1999 when forming the Scottish government could not be starker. During the campaign for the first elections to the Scottish Parliament in ’99, under the leadership of Paddy Ashdown, just as now had a clear and unambiguous manifesto pledge to:

“Abolish tuition fees for all Scottish students at UK universities.”

Following the election, however, as was the case in the 2010 general election, no party had an overall majority, with Labour and the Liberal Democrats in Scotland forming a partnership between the late Donald Dewer for Labour and Jim Wallace for the Liberal Democrats, now sitting in the coalition government as the Advocate General for Scotland.

In the agreement between the two parties that formed the Scottish government, however, a recognition was made that the Liberal Democrats were not being expected to dump their commitment to abolishing tuition fees. The agreement explained:

“We are agreed that the controversial issue of tuition fees is too important and too complex to be decided in the short period of time between the elections of 6 May and the formation of this Partnership Government.

“The Universities and other Higher Education bodies have emphasised to us the need to proceed through careful and thorough examination of all of the options.

“The Liberal Democrats stood on a manifesto commitment to abolish tuition fees. The Liberal Democrats have maintained their position on it. The partnership agreement does not mean abandonment of that position.”

To emphasise the point, the Liberal Democrat Education spokesman at the time, Nicol Stephen, who it was recently announced is to be ennobled to join the ranks of the House of Lords, clearly argued:

“The tuition fees issue would be placed effectively outside the partnership agreement and the Liberal Democrats would be able to maintain their opposition to tuition fees.”

Following the coalition agreement, the government in Edinburgh then commissioned Professor Andrew Cubie to undertake a full scale review of tuition fees in Scotland, reporting back in 2000 with the following key conclusions:

Tuition fees should be replaced by a Scottish graduate endowment scheme, with the Scottish executive paying the fees and students being required to pay £3,000 of it back when their earnings reach £25,000 a year;

• Scottish students from low income backgrounds should be entitled to a bursary of up to £2,060, with single parents and mature students entitled to even more help;

• The threshold for parental and spousal contributions should be set so that families with earnings below £23,000 would not have to make a contribution.

Responding to the report, Scottish Liberal Democrats leader and deputy first minister Jim Wallace concluded:

“We welcome the fact that Cubie recommends the abolition of tuition fees. This remains the party’s policy.”

And responding to a 2003 Q and A session on the Scotsman website about what difference the Lib Dems had made in Government, Wallace explained:

“I think we made significant differences in the last four years. The abolition of tuition fees and the reintroduction of student grants came from the Liberal Democrats.”

It has to be wondered, therefore, if the Lib Dems in Scotland were able to maintain their opposition to tuition fees whilst in coalition government, why can they not do the same in Westminster?

And more seriously, the position of Jim (now Lord Wallace) as the coalition government’s Advocate General for Scotland is seriously questionable. How can it be right that as a minister in Scotland he fought to abolish tuition fees because it was the fair thing to do, then support government in Westminster that does exactly the opposite in England.

Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.