Dr Pack & Mr Tall Debate… Tuition fees: what should Lib Dem party policy now be?

by Stephen Tall on February 2, 2012

Over at LibDemVoice, Mark Pack and I debate how Lib Dem party higher education policy can move forward now £9k tuition fees are a reality. You can find the original piece, with comments thread, here. Below is the blatantly copy ‘n pasted version…

In the week of the publication of university application figures, LibDemVoice co-editors Mark Pack and Stephen Tall debate what it means for the Lib Dems’ future policy…

Stephen Tall: The publication of the University application figures for 2012 — the first year of the new £9k maximum fees regime — has something for everyone. Those who have always claimed the prospect of huge debt would deter potential students can point to the headline 8.7% decline in applications. Those who say the new fees repayments system is the best affordable deal can highlight that this year marks the second highest ever number of applications from teenagers, including for those from disadvantaged areas. Whichever side you take, these are in any case just one year’s figures: this debate will continue to rage.

Another debate which will rage is likely to be this: what should the Lib Dem policy on tuition fees now be? Officially, party policy remains unchanged from the 2010 manifesto: the Lib Dems are committed to abolishing them. However, we all know what happened after the general election: the biting reality of Coalition politics triggered an infamous U-turn. Can the party really enter the 2015 general election with the same policy that we reneged on in this parliament? And if not how should Lib Dem policy start adapting to the changed reality of the new fees policy?

Mark Pack: Both the economics and the politics of promising to abolishing tuition fees in the 2015 manifesto look pretty implausible to me. Even if we thought it was politically sensible to say “we didn’t do it last time, but we really mean it this time”, given the likely state of the nation’s finances in 2015 there is unlikely to be much money to spare for extra spending on policy priorities and there’s going to be a long list of other worthy causes to lay claim to what cash there is.

What might well be plausible on both fronts is a limited expansion of bursaries and the like so that tuition fees and maintenance costs are covered for a larger number of those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds. It would fit well with Nick Clegg’s passion for social mobility and the party’s wide message about building a fairer society.

Stephen Tall: I agree with you on both the economic and political implausibility of sticking to a ‘scrap fees’ policy which almost half the party’s MPs voted against. Yet I also find it implausible that the Lib Dem conference-voting members will find it in themselves to jettison a policy to which the party has been so wedded. I guess a compromise might be accommodated which sidelines the abolition of fees as a long-term aspiration impossible in present circumstances — in which case it risks becoming our Clause IV, a not-to-be-implemented policy which members cling to out of nostalgia but which simply reminds the public of a distinctly unglorious moment in our party’s history.

On your point about the party developing a more pragmatic policy of targeted assistance to help those groups most likely to be put off by fees, this seems to me essential. However, we need to ensure our thinking is informed by evidence of what actually works. As it happens in the example you cite, bursaries, the evidence so far indicates such assistance doesn’t actually help encourage the poorest to apply to university (though it may help in lowering drop-out rates). Too much educational policy in this country is based on personal hunches of what should work, and not enough on the reality of what will help. If the party wants to be taken seriously on access to higher education, it needs to start doing some proper policy heavy-lifting. And soon.

Mark Pack: The big untouched issue in higher education is the reliance on lectures – and on lecturers who aren’t trained in lecturing to boot. I say this as a former sometime university lecturer… We say the education is vital and yet let people get up in front of students and lecture with remarkably little in the way of training in many cases. Reputations and ratings do help push universities into doing rather more than they used to in order to ensure that lecturers do a good job, but even whey they do the central tool – the lecture – is still predominantly used in a very old fashioned way.

With the widespread availability of video on demand over the internet letting students watch the world’s best lecturers from previous decades at the click of a mouse, the idea that there should be widespread use of an inexperienced, under-trained person who stands up and talks for 55 minutes is very much in need of questioning.