Why I disagree with the Lib Dems and fully support university tuition fees (and the Coalition)

by Stephen Tall on July 17, 2010

I could write an in-depth article explaining my support for University tuition fees, but I see I’ve done so a number of times already.*

So I’ll confine myself to making three points:

1. The nature of party, and especially coalition, politics.

I’ve seen a handful (and only a handful) of Lib Dems saying abot various issues over the past two months, “That’s it for me, I cannot support policy X, I’m resigning my party membership”. Well, that’s their choice, of course. But to resign from a political party because you disagree on any one single issue strikes me as odd and more than a little, well, precious.

All political parties are borad churches. Frankly if any individual (including the leader!) agrees wholly even with 80% of a party’s policies I’d doubt their intellectual independence. I agree with most Lib Dem policies most of the time: and that’s enough for me. Anyone who looks for more than that is either living in some weird Utopia, or else is totally unrealistic about the nature of politics.

For years I’ve had a fundamental disagreement with Lib Dem policy on university tuition fees: I’m in favour, the party’s against. I’ve lived with it. A majority of party members have clearly stated their view that they’re against them and I’ve accepted the democratic will of the party.

In 2005, when I was considering whether at some stage I should stand for Parliament, I decided I couldn’t sign up to represent the party in the Commons given my views. But I was quite happy to continue supporting, campaigning for, and donating to, the Lib Dems. Those are the trade-offs you accept when you join forces with tens of thousands of others.

All parties are coalitions, and parties which are in Coalition even more so. Deal with it.

And now a couple of points about tuition fees themselves …

2. Market tuition fees are more responsive to students than government second-guessing.

Left Foot Forward summed up one of the key objections to fees when it stated:

It is quite right for Dr Cable to ask why, under the current unpopular and regressive top-up fee system, a care worker or teacher is expected to pay for their education as much as a corporate lawyer or banker.

But this is misguided on two levels.

First, the corporate lawyer or banker (note the article doesn’t suggest secondary school head-teacher) will pay far more in general taxation than either the care worker or teacher throughout their working life. So why double-tax them for their careers choice?

Secondly, and more importantly, market tuition fees price in exactly these kinds of issues without the government having to take a view. Law and finance degrees would cost more under a market tuition fees system because there is an expectation of future earnings associated with those professions; vocational degrees in lower-paid professions will, likewise, be much cheaper.

3. But shouldn’t education be free as of right?

I’ve seen this argument played out a lot in recent days. But it’s inconsistent. After all, we expect post-graduates to fund their degrees, whether out of their own pocket or by applying for funding. No-one suggests the state should fund Masters and Doctorates.

So there is an implicit recognition that, actually, education isn’t free as of right.

The accurate claim is more limited: that undergraduate and before education is free as of right.

Actually it used to be more limited even than that: that full-time undergraduate education is free as of right. (The party’s pledge to abolish tutiton fees used not to apply to part time undergraduates, about a fifth of the total number.)

Actually it used to be even more limited even than that: that full-time undergraduate education leading to a degree is free as of right. (The party’s pledge to abolish tuition fees used not to apply to adult learners following a non-degree route.)

It was only last year, in 2009, that the party eventually recognised the inconsistency of its policies, and broadened its ‘abolish tuition fees’ policy to include part-time undergraduates, and adult learners pursuing non-degree education – even though these categories of students were least likely to have family funding to back them, and were most likely to be unwilling to incur debt on the basis of future earnings.

So the idea that the party has always believed education should be free as of right is a very recent development – and still doesn’t apply to post-graduate degrees, or second undergraduate degrees. In other words, the Lib Dems have always recognised that there are limits to state funding of higher education: the question is not one of fundamental principle, but simply where you draw the line.

* Here are seven articles I’ve written over the past five years dealing with the issue of tuition fees: