The rebellion inside the Liberal Democrats is not one against the acceptance of Lord Browne’s report on funding higher education in
. It is a rebellion by Liberal Democrat Ministers in the UK Government against the firm principles of their party. This presents Liberal Democrats across the England with their first opportunity to say that they might be persuaded to accept some compromises in coalition – but they will not be bounced into a complete u-turn on a matter of principle. UK
We should start of by remembering the party’s position here. Education is not a commodity. It is a right. It was one of the
UK’s saddest days when rubber stamped Blair's decision that higher and further education should become purchasable commodities. Tertiary education is no more "goods for sale" than primary or secondary education. It is the gift of our community and it should be given freely for the best of reasons - enlightened, communal self-interest. Westminster
This is an issue of principle not pragmatism. Before they introduced them, in the 1997 General Election campaign, I asked New Labour's Scottish Education spokesperson when fees would rise from one to two thousand pounds, and when variations in cost between subjects were introduced, and if perhaps it might be the turn of six-form colleges to charge fees next? I received in effect that most hideous and often chilling of politicians' replies. "We have no plans to do what you are suggesting". The only problem was, and is, that I wasn't "suggesting". I was predicting.
Virtually the same questions can be asked of the Coalition Government. Where does it say that this system is set in stone? What principle is it based on? Neither Lord Browne nor the Vince Cable can answer these questions. The tuition fee system proposed is a pragmatic answer to the financial mess we are in. Come the next mess, there will be yet another answer. And so it will go on. The only real progressive thing here is the progressive nibbling away at the edges of free education.
Vince Cable might well have built progressive elements into the system proposed by Lord Browne, but in doing so he accepts the fundamental premise that education is a commodity.
This leaves one to ask how Scottish Liberal Democrats in the UK Parliament will vote on raising tuition fees in
. In England we - the Scottish Liberal Democrats in the Scottish Government - proudly abolished them (and agreed the graduate endowment). It was a matter of principle. Will it be a matter of principle in Scotland too? Not according to the leadership, apparently. Westminster
We should remember at this point how disgusting a spectacle it was when New Labour passed laws for England using a majority provided by Scottish MPs – but where the Scottish Parliament had voted for something completely different. We should remember, also, that the Liberal Democrats in
are not even bound to vote for this measure. “If the response of the Government to Lord Browne’s report is one that Liberal Democrats cannot accept, then arrangements will be made to enable Liberal Democrat MPs to abstain in any vote.” So says the Coalition’ Programme for Government, signed in May, with a clear steer that Liberal Democrats would not vote to raise tuition fees in Westminster . England
we have to sort this one out for our own Universities. We should give priority in the Budget Bill to spending to higher education. It is one of the geese that lays Scotland 's golden eggs. We should reconsider whether we need 50% of young Scots in higher and further education. The figure has never had a meaninful explanation and it is time to ask the question properly, rather than continuing to follow a figure that appears to have been plucked from thin air. We should consider the possibility of students with advanced highers and further education modular qualifications going into second year at university, and at solving once and for all the outmoded nonsense that stops proper articulation between the various parts of our education system. We should even look at merging institutions. Above all else, we should find ways to have business invest more in universities and colleges. Their record in Scotland is not good. Scotland
Under no circumstances should we abandon the principle of free education. It is one of the very foundations of modern