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.

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Very well said.

by Simon on October 7, 2008 at 2:43 pm. Reply #

Cue some forensic examination of Lib Dem literature in University towns and of the subsequent press statements of any MPs who won on the back of this non-promise.

by Chris Paul on October 7, 2008 at 3:12 pm. Reply #

PS Mr John Leech has had a local paper collude in removing reference to the Top Up fees claims of 2005 from an online news story.

I wonder if anyone has a copy of the print edition?

by Chris Paul on October 7, 2008 at 3:28 pm. Reply #

Finds newspaper. Embarrassing climbdown:

In fact the remark is still there in the online edition too. Just not with much prominence. Leech says:

“I have continued to campaign against tuition fees and top-up fees.”

Which according to Williams was not the policy anyway. It was just that everyone – including MPs and Candidates – didn’t understand that and so misled the electorate.

by Chris Paul on October 7, 2008 at 3:46 pm. Reply #

The fundamental question is, will the new policy be about reinvesting the amount we are committed to scrapping fees with into other ways to ensure that HE is as accessible as possible – in which case I have an open mind – or is it to be pared down to make way for tax cuts for everyone else? If the latter, then it is a complete non-starter in my opinion.

by James Graham on October 7, 2008 at 4:39 pm. Reply #

I hope the party can do something for part-time students.
My two daughters both opted to leave at 16, but a year or two later when a little more mature, and having entered the working world, they both took up OU degree courses.

But,they had to buy all their books and tuition from very junior working salaries.

If they had stayed on in 6th form they would have been provided with all this free.

If we are talking fairness, surely the student should be entitled to two years of A Level teaching, wherever, and whenever in their careers they decide to do it.
My view is that the OU foundation courses should be free to any students who have missed out on 6th form.

As a former A level teacher I found 16-18s vary greatly in maturity and confidence. Many are also sick of Pavlovian school systems and want to get into the adult world.

The quality of OU degrees is very high.
If we could, by giving the equivalent of the two A level years free, encourage more people into this route, it would be an alternative to piling up future debt.

by Elizabeth Patterson on October 7, 2008 at 4:53 pm. Reply #

I suppose this is just the latest attempt by MPs (who think they are a lot cleverer than the rest of the party) to ditch every distinctive policy which got through to people. If it was popular, it seems the rush to ditch it is even greater.

It’s called collective suicide.

Tony Greaves

by Tony Greaves on October 7, 2008 at 5:04 pm. Reply #

It is all very well Chris Paul sounding smug. Labour have been in office for over 10 years, and our public finances are in a dreadful state. It is hard for any political party to realistically promise any worthwhile spending committments at the next general election, including Labour, and all thanks to Labour mismanagement whilst in office.

by Geoffrey Payne on October 7, 2008 at 5:04 pm. Reply #

I am all in favour of free tuition for part time students as well as full time students.

The main issues for me are:

1 Doing a degree should not mean clocking up massive debt. Surely the current economic crisis highlights the idiocy of the Government encouraging the debt mountain?

2 Adults should be treated as such and their income should not be judged on the basis of their parents.

3 The funding for higher education should be progressive – ie those who end up doing socailly useful jobs should not end up paying back more than those who choose more financially lucrative careers.

I also happen to beleive that steadily expanding higher education is a sound investemnt for the country as a whole.

This leads me to believe that students should not pay up front fees and should be entitled to sufficient support to live on.

I am flexible about how and to what extent graduates should contribute back once their income hits a reasonable level (by which I mean a lot higher than when repayments kick in now).

We could adjust our tax policies so that everyone earning income above average graduate earnings pays a bit more, for example, or we could charge gradautes a higher level of tax above that level. I would prefer the former but accept the latter.

What I don’t accept is that we should saddle individuals with large debts or that we have to choose between properly funding higher education or early years.

by Liberal Neil on October 7, 2008 at 5:20 pm. Reply #

Tony, that’s strong language and I’m not sure I agree with you.

If we are to constantly prove and improve our relevance to voters we must be able to take a look in the mirror, even if we don’t like what we see staring back at us.

Higher education is a policy area where it is impossible to keep fully up to date with developments because changes happen on a day-to-day basis.

I think it is vital to the ongoing popularity of our policies to keep them grounded in reality and therefore we must challenge ourselves to keep coming up with better solutions.

by Oranjepan on October 7, 2008 at 5:34 pm. Reply #

I have to say that I’ve always found this a regressive policy.

Evidence suggests that the problem poorer people face in accessing university isn’t fees but poor performance at school.

If we are going to really help children from disadvantaged backgrounds get into and through university, we need to improve educational standards in schools.

The alternative (Labour) policy of forcing universities to take children with poor grades if they come from poor communities is simply daft.

by Tom Papworth on October 7, 2008 at 9:15 pm. Reply #

Nobody disagrees with that, Tom, but isn’t the official party line now that we don’t need to spend more on primary and secondary education but instead need to spend the existing budgets better?

And there is no point in giving people from poor backgrounds the best education possible only to slap down a massive glass ceiling on their heads once they reach 18.

by James Graham on October 7, 2008 at 9:19 pm. Reply #

Geoffrey Payne says:

It is all very well Chris Paul sounding smug.

Snug? I’m disgusted at the opportunism of Lib Dems on the ground. As a lefty I was not particularly enamoured with TUFs but found myself accepting the settlement of grants and no upfront fees etc (much it seems as LD policy) because of the proposition of increasing participation and also the fact that many working class people in FE have been paying means tested fees since the beginning of time.

Labour have been in office for over 10 years, and our public finances are in a dreadful state.

I don’t actually agree with that GP. There is certainly nothing in the opportunistic offerings of the LDs that would have made this better. Though the principle of progressive taxation I share and we ain’t back there yet as a party. But we’ll see what this crisis brings.

It is hard for any political party to realistically promise any worthwhile spending committments at the next general election, including Labour, and all thanks to Labour mismanagement whilst in office.

It seems to have been beyond the LDs to realistically promise any worthwhile spending commitments at any general election. But it doesn’t usually matter.

Most galling though is the fact that Lib Dems may talk progressive but have for years been taking opportunistic Tory positions against Labour. How can “the progressive alliance” which should see a Tory free forever even without AV be taken seriously when there is an underlying Toriness, exacerbated by ever changing positions on tax, TUFs and so on.

And what must be considered a hugely dishonest campaign – including on TUFs – on the ground.

Lord Greaves is right about this. And yet wrong. Stephen W is getting the analysis about right I think. Pretty much agreeing with the Labour pragmatism LDs have pretended to oppose. But Lord G wants some consistency and he is right.

by Chris Paul on October 7, 2008 at 11:32 pm. Reply #

The party should have grasped the nettle of a graduate tax when the issue first arose. If the currently policy is to be dropped, a graduate tax would be my instinctive alternative. The current government policy is a shambles.

by Mouse on October 8, 2008 at 7:04 am. Reply #


It is certainly the case that we need policies that address the needs of pupils from poorer backgrounds so that they have a fair opportunity to do well.

BUT we would be fooling ourselves if we thought we could solve that problem entirely by improving the education system – other factors such as family expectations and attitude also play a major part and we also need to look at how we can affect them as well.

Secondly please don’t beleive the myth that there is any suggestion that we should get more students from ordinary backgrounds into higher education by allowing students with ‘poor’ grades.

There are more than enough potential students from ordinary families with very good grades to fill every place at Oxford and Cambridge. There are also many, many students from better off backgrounds who also have verey good or excellent grades too.

I certainly don’t want students to be going to university who don’t have the skills to do well. But there is no question of that happening, and indeed no reason why abolishing tuition fees and providing a reasonable income should cause that to heppen.

But at the end of the day if going into higher education means building up a large personal debt, it will put people off. And the more debt averse your background, or the lower the expectation that you will go to university, the more likely that debt is to put you off.

by Liberal Neil on October 8, 2008 at 9:28 am. Reply #

Chris, you really didn’t respond to any of the points I made about the public finances. Vince Cable has been warning for years about this, so there is nothing “opportunistic” about the Lib Dems position on this. Personally I think the next government will have to raise taxes AND reduce public spending because of the way things are at the moment.
I do not see that you personally have written anything here that suggests you want a “progressive alliance” that you say you believe in. Labour also have a responsibility in abandoning it’s previous committments to civil liberties and an ethical foreign policy which if anything is even more defined by the Tory politics of Thatcher and Murdoch.

by Geoffrey Payne on October 8, 2008 at 9:34 am. Reply #

“Finally, we did NOT promise free tuition for ALL students at the last election.”

Well we said:

So I think there is a degree of post-facto sophistry going on here.

What Stephen seems to be saying though is that our previous tuition fees policy was a dogs breakfast.

Has anyone worked out what the impact of the credit crunch will be on the provision of bank loans etc to fund university education? I heard stories from people going on to LLMs this autumn that they found it harder to get/extend loans than the previous autumn?

by Hywel Morgan on October 8, 2008 at 6:13 pm. Reply #

“I certainly don’t want students to be going to university who don’t have the skills to do well. But there is no question of that happening,”

I have the highest regard for Neil – especially on this issue. But I don’t think this is a sustainable point

Nearly a quarter fail to complete courses and around 100,000 dropping out in the first year.

I would say that I met students who didn’t have the skills to do well – and they didn’t all drop out.

If you don’t require a commitment from people going to University (which can be intellectual rather than financial) then you will get people not making the work commitment that is necessary. That is – fundamentally – the reason why I dropped out when I went when I was 18.

by Hywel Morgan on October 8, 2008 at 6:21 pm. Reply #

Geoffrey: What points did you make about the Public Finances exactly? You just asserted they were bad.

The opportunism I’m complaining of is for instance on abolishing Tuition Fees and Top Up Fees.

I would love to see a progressive alliance and no more Tory governments, ever. But the Lib Dems are not taking genuine progressive positions.

by Chris Paul on October 9, 2008 at 5:55 pm. Reply #

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