The Coalition and Tuition Fees: history may well be kinder (though that may be too late for the Lib Dems)

by Stephen Tall on April 20, 2012

One of the first posts I ever blogged, over 7 years ago, explained my support for tuition fees, and why it would be in the interests of the Lib Dems to to drop their opposition to them. Ironically, given how history panned out, it was because I felt I couldn’t honestly stand for election to Parliament while being unable to support a major plank of Lib Dem policy that I decided not to become an MP.

After a month of political omnishambles — which has discredited the concept of coalition government as much as it has undermined George Osborne — I thought I’d return to the topic of tuition fees once again. And here’s the reason: to stake my belief that one of the best, most far-sighted, policies this Government will be remembered for is its liberalisation of higher education.

For Lib Dems, that statement probably seems hard to credit. There is, though, no contradiction between my view and the political reality that the party’s belated decision to face reality and adopt a credible policy may well cost us dear at the next general election.

That the Coalition has hit upon a scheme which will enable anyone from any background to study at university while paying nothing upfront and not have to pay back a penny until they’re earning more than £21k is as ingenious as it is consistent with a liberal commitment to social mobility.

It is also testament to how coalition government can work at its best: neither the Tories nor Lib Dems left to their own separate devices would’ve devised a scheme I genuinely believe will work well for universities and for students.

But will the government, let alone the Lib Dems, get credit for the tuition fees policy? That seems, to put it mildly, unlikely. So perhaps the Coalition can take some solace in the fact that ’twas ever thus. Policies are more often acclaimed retrospectively than contemporaneously, as research by Nick Hillman (David Willetts’ special advisor) has uncovered:

… the records suggest that the immediate reaction to any higher education policy is a poor guide to how that policy will come to be seen. Many people think of the 1960s, just after the publication of the Robbins report, as the glory days of UK universities. The Education Act 1962 delivered mandatory student support for the first time and the sector was growing fast, with far more students and far more money.

Yet stored away in an old file in Kew is an exchange of letters from that time between an academic at Newcastle University and Quintin Hogg, the minister of education. The academic, a Professor Russell, warned of “the almost universal attitude of cynicism with which each reported announcement of universities is received”. Hogg replied that “this is the kind of thing best calculated to hamper me in my work, which I am sure you do not wish to do”. Undaunted, the scholar wrote back, noting: “All is not well in the universities – as the recent rash of departures, resignations and public statements show.”

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15 comments

New post by me: The Coalition and Tuition Fees: history may well be kinder (though that may be too late for the Lib… http://t.co/CoA34h8e

by Stephen Tall on April 20, 2012 at 9:10 am. Reply #

Here's that post @nickhillman > The Coalition and Tuition Fees: history may well be kinder http://t.co/CoA34h8e

by Stephen Tall on April 20, 2012 at 9:20 am. Reply #

Interesting post by @stephentall: Coalition and Tuition Fees: history may well be kinder http://t.co/vkzveDGu (incl a welcome plug for me!)

by Nick Hillman on April 20, 2012 at 12:11 pm. Reply #

Interesting post by @stephentall: Coalition and Tuition Fees: history may well be kinder http://t.co/vkzveDGu (incl a welcome plug for me!)

by Richard Brabner on April 20, 2012 at 12:18 pm. Reply #

Interesting post by @stephentall: Coalition and Tuition Fees: history may well be kinder http://t.co/vkzveDGu (incl a welcome plug for me!)

by Stephen Tall on April 20, 2012 at 12:19 pm. Reply #

Tuition fees: "one of the best, most far-sighted, policies this Government will be remembered for" < Yes, I wrote that: http://t.co/CoA34h8e

by Stephen Tall on April 20, 2012 at 12:30 pm. Reply #

Interesting post by @stephentall: Coalition and Tuition Fees: history may well be kinder http://t.co/vkzveDGu (incl a welcome plug for me!)

by Tim Leunig on April 20, 2012 at 12:36 pm. Reply #

The Coalition and Tuition Fees: history may well be kinder (though that may be too late for the Lib Dems) http://t.co/YnbFiwxp

by BexhillBattleLibDems on April 20, 2012 at 12:46 pm. Reply #

Interesting post by @stephentall: Coalition and Tuition Fees: history may well be kinder http://t.co/vkzveDGu (incl a welcome plug for me!)

by Deanna Rexe on April 20, 2012 at 2:19 pm. Reply #

From me this morning > Coalition government at its best? My take on tuition fees here > http://t.co/CoA34h8e

by Stephen Tall on April 20, 2012 at 4:18 pm. Reply #

RT @stephentall From me this morning > Coalition government at its best? My take on tuition fees here > http://t.co/LqagpyBS

by HouseofTwitsLib on April 20, 2012 at 4:30 pm. Reply #

RT @stephentall From me this morning > Coalition government at its best? My take on tuition fees here > http://t.co/skZOIP1N

by House Of Twits on April 20, 2012 at 4:30 pm. Reply #

I think that the fact that Nick Hillman has found an academic complaining in the 1960s, shows that one thing doesn’t change. There is a constant literature all through the twentieth century stating that higher education is in crisis.

But I defy anyone to find a mass outpouring of anger at the implementation of the Anderson reforms that lead to grants. (in fact, there were protests in support of the report). The extension of the graduate contribution system will be made to work, but there remain major problems in the government’s drive to create a market on price (there is already a market for students) with the absurdity of the core and margin, AAB+ scheme etc.

And, one of the key arguments used by the Secretary of State for this whole thing: deficit reduction, is clearly not happening in the short term (David Willetts announced how much spending is having to go up to pay for the scheme) and how much comes back from graduates in the long term is very unlikely to cover the costs of the scheme.

by Mike Ratcliffe on April 21, 2012 at 6:49 am. Reply #

The Coalition and Tuition Fees: history may well be kinder (though that may be too late for the Lib Dems) http://t.co/mpz4G7NP

by Peter Henderson on May 7, 2012 at 2:18 pm. Reply #

@Niaccurshi @guardian_clark The fees policy is right (http://t.co/CozYwGZ4) but the ship has sailed on rescuing the politics from it!

by Stephen Tall on August 7, 2012 at 12:10 pm. Reply #

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