The Browne Review and university funding: what’s likely to happen next…

by Stephen Tall on October 11, 2010

The publication of the Browne Review into university funding has been brought into even sharper focus for Lib Dems by Vince Cable’s email to party members over the weekend ruling out a ‘pure’ graduate tax to replace tuition fees.

This has sparked vigorous debate, both here on Lib Dem Voice, and beyond, with Lib Dem MPs coming under pressure to stick by their pre-election pledge to oppose any increase in tuition fees.

Some of this sound and fury has been overdone. None of us has yet seen the detail of the funding proposals being brought forward by Vince Cable, which it is clear will be a hybrid funding system: neither pure tuition fees, nor pure graduate tax, but a mixture of the two.

It is clear Vince believes the new funding system that’s been devised will be both fairer and more affordable than a pure graduate tax, and that it meets the spirit of the party’s long-standing opposition to tuition fees though clearly not the letter. Whether Lib Dem MPs and members accept this compromise we’ll see soon enough.

Saturday’s Times published an outline (£ paywall link) of what is likely to come forward, which I’m given to understand is an accurate reflection of the proposals Vince will publish next week, namely:

  • the Coalition will accept Browne’s recommendation that the cap on fees is lifted (though not necessarily to the full £7k envisaged by Browne);
  • any university wishing to charge more than £7k will have to put in place a comprehensive scheme of financial aid, and pay a proportion to the government to compensate for the additional student loan costs incurred;
  • fees will not be payable upfront (as is also the situation now — though when Labour initially introduced fees in 1998 they were payable by students (or more likely their parents) upfront);
  • interest rates on student loans will be made variable based on graduates earnings (this is not ‘pure’ graduate tax, but its impact on most students is pretty much the same as a graduate tax);
  • the threshold for loan repayments will be increased from the present £15,000 (so no-one who earns below the new level will be liable for any repayments at all);
  • the government will announce new funding for more publicly-funded bursaries and scholarships.

So what happens next?

Well tonight, Monday, Vince will brief Lib Dem MPs on the package. This will be the first test of whether the Coalition model is judged acceptable to those MPs who’ve already publicly said they will not vote for an increase in tuition fees.

Tomorrow, Tuesday, Browne delivers his report. Its findings, trailed for so long, are unlikely to surprise many. But the Coalition will look keenly to the initial poll findings to judge whether there are particular parts which are judged unacceptable.

Then next week, the same week as the Comprehensive Spending Review, Vince will announce the proposed new funding system. There is unlikely to be a further round of consultation.

What will be the reaction of Lib Dem MPs and members? In part this will depend on whether Vince is able to persuade even the most sceptical that the combined impact of the package of reforms he’s proposing are progressive, fair and affordable. However, there appears to be acceptance within the party leadership that a large number of Lib Dem MPs will elect to take up the opportunity written into the Coalition agreement to abstain; and that many others will go further, and actively vote against the measures. It is quite possible the Government will be defeated.

Lib Dem party policy, of course, remains unchanged by all this Coalition manoeuvring: the party continues to be opposed to tuition fees, and committed to scrapping them. Though how Nick and Vince will simultaneously defend the Coalition proposals at the next election (if they do navigate the Parliamentary arithmetic) while propounding existing Lib Dem policy is anyone’s guess (and an inevitable hazard of coalition politics, the more so if you’re the junior partner).

It’s well worth reading ConservativeHome’s take on the issue, which asks the mirror-image question to the one Lib Dems are pondering: Will there be a Conservative revolt over the Government’s hybrid student finance plans?