Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Tuition fees - a way ahead?

The Liberal Democrat blogosphere has been overheating with the anger felt at the tuition fees announcement – and quite rightly so.

During the campaign, many parliamentary candidates, including myself and all our MPs, signed a pledge to the National Union of Students not to increase tuition fees. Indeed in an earlier entry about the coalition agreement, I expressed concern that there was not enough about tuition fees – being allowed to abstain was insufficient.

Labour introduced fees and bankrupted the country, the Tories are happy to see bigger fees to make it easier for rich kids to get in, and yet Liberal Democrats will get the blame! Such is politics! But it is fair to say that our party has not done enough and we have let many of our supporters down.

Anyone who is prepared to work hard enough should be entitled to a university education. I myself had some happy years studying at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth. For most people it is their first experience of living away from home, giving a feeling of independence and teaching you self-discipline and responsibility – as well as the chance to meet fellow students from around the country, develop a great social life, and study a subject you enjoy.

The year before I started university, the then Thatcher government removed the right of students to claim housing benefit and introduced the poll tax. Neither went down well. We had no fees, of course, and a modest grant which could be topped up by reasonable loans.

But if I were a student now I would certainly be having second thoughts. Having a degree, a large debt of up to £40,000 and no job – all at the age of 22 is not attractive. And of course in the subsequent years many graduates then get married, have kids and a mortgage, and face an entire livelihood on debt. And, as is often said, you can’t live on debt.

If university attendances were decided by ability rather than finance, then the best minds would develop in topics such as law, medicine and science which would be of the benefit of society as a whole. However if only those from well-off families could go to university then not only would standards decline but it would be waste of some of our best minds and, as we Lib Dems like to say, it is not fair.

So what should we do?

Firstly, I would hope as many Liberal Democrat MPs as possible vote against the government. There’s enough Lib Dems as part of the government to join the Tories (who will of course happily vote for higher fees) and get it through but at least the point would be made.

Secondly, we should recommit our party to the principle of abolishing tuition fees. We have not been able to do so because we did not win enough votes but we should indicate it remains a principle to phase them out in the medium term.

Thirdly, as many Lib Dem candidates and members as possible should publicly make it clear they stand alongside the students and join the campaign against tuition fees for the sake of our universities and education standards.

Fourthly, the party should set up a policy committee to establish how the funding could take place for this commitment so that in 2015 we can come forward with costed proposals and a timetable.

These are just some ideas, and there will no doubt be many more which will arise. But we have to hold up our hands and admit we have let young people and their families down. We must work out how we can regain that trust.

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