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.”