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Tuition fees: the fallout

Thursday’s narrow victory on the tuition fees bill marked the first major blow to the Coalition. The bill passed, but at a price of serious internal division within the Liberal Democrat party, and having given rise to a nationwide protest movement, raising a number of important issues beyond higher education, or what will remain of it.
Oliver Huitson
18 December 2010

Thursday’s narrow victory on the tuition fees bill marked the first major blow to the Coalition. The bill passed, but at a price of serious internal division within the Liberal Democrat party, and having given rise to a nationwide protest movement, raising a number of important issues beyond higher education, or what will remain of it. The likelihood of the Coalition lasting intact until 2015 has been somewhat diminished and once again the relationships between police, state and public are facing serious examination, as Ryan Gallagher explores in his piece for OurKingdom. But for supporters of electoral reform there is another problem; what is emerging is a nation without a clear model of coalition politics.

The tripling of tuition fees to £9,000 is not just obscene in monetary terms but far more so in terms of the supporting ideology. As Alan Finlayson has discussed in detail, higher education is no longer a public benefit, supplying a workforce capable of financing an effective state for all; it is now a private good to be paid for almost entirely by the young person consuming it. The removal of funding for the arts and humanities, in particular, is the act of a decaying nation sinking into the mire.

Graduates will now enter the workforce (if they’re lucky) with £30,000-£40,000 of debt. But why stop at higher education? At the risk of giving Michael Gove ideas, if education is a purely private gain there is no reason not to introduce fees for college. Or secondary school. We accept the wider benefits of education, it seems, until it comes to universities. The policy makes little sense, in either social or economic terms, and will do nothing but inflame the increasingly bitter sense of generational injustice.

The bill’s passing also marks problems for coalition politics in general, and for the prospect of seeing a Yes vote returned in the upcoming referendum on the Alternative Vote. There have already been attempts to cast this as a warning sign on the dangers of coalitions, and, by implication, the dangers of AV. This is not only misguided but requires a serious bout of amnesia.

The breaking of explicit electoral pledges is now so commonplace that Gordon Brown even sought to establish the principle in court, arguing that “manifesto pledges are not subject to legitimate expectation”. Labour themselves broke a pledge from their ’97 manifesto to hold a referendum on electoral reform. The original introduction of top-up fees for higher education, under Tony Blair, came after an express manifesto guarantee to the contrary in 2001. As for the current coalition, a substantial number of bills produced bear scant resemblance to anything in either manifesto, neither in detail nor spirit. Reneging on electoral pledges has a rich history under the first-past-the-post electoral system, and it has the further downsides of delivering plainly undemocratic governance, ‘elective dictatorship’. Broken promises are not the preserve of coalitions.

Regardless, prior acts of betrayal do little to temper the disgust felt by many at such a flagrant breach of commitments. The pledge of the Liberal Democrats to vote against any rise in tuition fees was no mere passing comment; this was a cast-iron guarantee accompanied by photos of beaming candidates holding their signed pledges aloft. Of the four ‘red lines’ protected by Clegg in forming the coalition, the decision to include the ‘pupil-premium’ ahead of freezing tuition fees tells of a party that had campaigned for opposition, not for government.

The Liberal Democrat’s support has plummeted to just 11 per cent of those polled. Clegg himself must bear a significant share of blame for this, as Stuart Weir has pointed out. Had he led a dutiful but regretful party, gritting its teeth and fighting its corner with gusto, their prospects would not be quite so bleak. It is the zeal with which Clegg’s coat has turned that has inflicted the real damage. The undeniably centre-left mass of the party is now being dragged rightward, across the precipice of the centre ground, to satiate the man’s personal ambitions and those of his lieutenants. After assuring voters in 2008 that he would “never join a Conservative government”, he has now not only done so, but has aggravated the revulsion by rejecting the party’s position as a centre-left option. He is now held in such widespread contempt by the electorate that it’s hard to imagine any resurgence in Lib Dem support with him still at its head.

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