Stephen Williams speaks out on Lib Dem tuition fees policy

by Stephen Tall on October 7, 2008

A recent Lib Dem Voice article which attracted a great deal of comment from LDV readers posed the question, Lib Dems to drop Tuition Fees pledge? Stephen Williams, Lib Dem MP for Bristol West, and the party’s shadow secretary of state for Innovation, Universities and Skills, has just posted this comment to the thread, setting out his views:

Let’s get some facts on the record. In the 2001 and 2005 elections in Bristol West I stated quite clearly that I opposed students paying fees. I stand by those comments completely and emphatically.

The policy review I am leading is to get a policy that is relevant for the 2010 general election, not a rehash of what we have said at previous ones. In April 2010 graduates will start paying a 9% flat rate tax on their earnings which will recover maintenance loans and a contribution to tuition. There are now (in 2008) very few undergraduates (just 4th years in fact) still paying up front fees. By this time next year there will be none.

I am all in favour of simple to understand policy messages, but they must be rooted in the reality of contemporary circumstances, not those of 5 years previously.

Finally, we did NOT promise free tuition for ALL students at the last election. Our promise was limited (and costed as such) to the full time undergraduates who paid up front fees. The message was clearly relevant and popular with them but meant NOTHING to full time students from poorer backgrounds who were exempt from fees (about a quarter of the total), or to part time undergraduates (about a fifth) or to the many adult learners following a non degree route.

My objective is to get a policy in place that is socially just, matches real people’s needs and also keeps the Liberal Democrats as the party with the widest appeal to students and graduates.