Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Let's crush this tuition fees rebellion

The rebellion inside the Liberal Democrats is not one against the acceptance of Lord Browne’s report on funding higher education in England. 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 UK 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.

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 Westminster 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.

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 England. In Scotland 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 Westminster too? Not according to the leadership, apparently.

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 Westminster 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 England.

Here in Scotland 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.

Under no circumstances should we abandon the principle of free education. It is one of the very foundations of modern Scotland.


  1. What sort of democracy do we have that requires special arrangements to be made to enable MPs to abstain in any vote?

    The MPs we elect should be free to vote (or not vote) however they feel is appropriate in every case. The party whip system makes a mockery of democracy.

    It's also sad that abstaining is seen as the most an objecting LibDem MP can do. They shouldn't abstain, they should vote strongly against.

    I won't be voting for them again because of their failure to stand up on this matter of principle. The LibDems have only a small fraction of power so compromise is inevitable but that does not excuse them for *actively backing* the complete opposite of their stated policies while deriding the principles they sold during the election.

    I don't know who I will be voting for, but not LibDem again. Never have nor will vote for the Tories. Never voting Labour again unless Tony Blair's head is put on a pike and anyone who so much as smiled at him in a non-ironic way is forced to do community service for the rest of their life...

    Oh for a party which actually cares about improving the quality of life of the general public rather than blindly maintaining the status quo of "monetary profit (for the rich) above all else."

  2. I assume you live in England Leo as we do have a party here in Scotland that "actually cares about improving the quality of life of the general public rather than blindly maintaining the status quo of monetary profit (for the rich) above all else"...is called the SNP. Maybe you should move North and benefit from a real choice. LibLabCon are all simply agents of the EU in their quest for "Global Governance".

  3. I do. Maybe the SNP could move south! :)

  4. How short sighted the politicians can be. The business leaders worried about restricting number of immigrant, as we do not have enough skilled/trained people in UK and by raising tuition fee government is forcing us to abandon higher education. What a sad day for our nation. I will never ever vote for Lib dem again, they are selling all their principles in the name of compromise.