Why Lib Dems shouldn’t keep schtum about tuition fees

by Stephen Tall on August 14, 2014

tuition fees vote“University tuition fee rise has not deterred poorer students from applying”. That was the headline in The Guardian this week reporting new analysis by the Independent Commission on Fees chaired by Will Hutton:

The raising of tuition fees to £9,000 has not put off students from disadvantaged backgrounds from applying to university – although the gap in applications between those from wealthy and poor backgrounds remains wide, according to new analysis. …

The commission found that university application rates for 18-year-olds in England have continued to recover from their post-rise lows, with application rates for 2014 entry – including students who will receive their A-level results on Thursday – almost two percentage points higher than in 2010.

While students who are not eligible for free school meals – available for pupils from households earning less than £16,000 – remain more than twice as likely to go to university, the gap between advantaged and disadvantaged students has narrowed from 30.5% in 2010 to 29.8% in 2013.

“Disadvantaged young people are applying to and entering higher education at higher rates than ever before, which is excellent news,” said Professor Les Ebdon, director of the Office of Fair Access to Higher Education watchdog.

The scare-mongering of the tuition fees critics has — thankfully — not proven to be self-prophesying: applications to universities are up, applications from students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds are up even more.

There remain concerns, particularly about the falls in applications from mature and part-time students, and those need to be addressed. But even if you don’t regard the policy as a success (to be clear: I do) it’s no longer possible to claim it as the disastrous failure its fiercest opponents expected (and seemed sometimes to want it to be).

Whenever I mention fees here commenters below-the-line argue we should just shut up about it, that the mere mention of the policy re-ignites public animosity at many of our MPs’ infamous breaking of their pledge. I disagree. The public will remember fees and our U-turn for a long time: that’s unavoidable. I think the outrage is over-done — both Labour and Conservatives have about-faced on policies before even when they’ve had healthy majorities without attracting the same opprobrium – but it is what it is. We have to live with it.

What I don’t think that means is that the policy should parade around for the rest of time with a big ‘kick me’ sign on its back because of it. Yes, those who signed the pledge to vote against fee increases screwed up. (By the by, I’ve written this week that my long-held pro-fees was what stopped me from standing for Parliament for the party.)

But the fees policy as crafted by Vince Cable and David Willetts is the very nature of Coalition politics: a negotiated agreement between two parties which was much-improved by the Lib Dem presence in government, is an improvement on the Labour system it replaced, and which is, by and large, working well in reality. We shouldn’t keep schtum about that: we should tell people.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.

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