Education Politics

Labour and Tuition Fees

I’ve been tempted to blog for some time about things but haven’t quite got around to it. But Harriet Harman’s comments at PMQs last night really ired me for some reason. I’m a paid-up member of the Liberal Democrats, and a student, but I’m not going to leave the party on the issue of tuition fees. There has been a lot of misinformation about the tuition fee debate, most of it from Labourites (still) trying to besmirch Clegg for caving in to the wrong party (but that’s for another post), or from people who believe the first set of people while not verifying for themselves.

In short:

  • “The Lib Dems” are not backtracking on the issue as a party. The party policy remains the abolition of tuition fees. The problem is, the Lib Dems are less homogeneous than the Tories or Labour (especially so as the social/market liberal divide is quite profound). The backtrackers are people like Clegg, Cable, Alexander, who have supported the policy (although seem to be considering abstention: not as good as opposition, but most likely the best they can do to respect parliamentary convention and party convention at the same time).
  • The fees will not be retroactive. I’ve talked to several first years who are concerned this will happen. It won’t. Even the Tories won’t bring in that sort of retroactive law.
  • Not all universities will raise fees to £9,000. Some will—definitely Oxbridge, most likely the rest of the Russell Group—, but raising it above £6000 will mean a loss of government subsidy and higher levies on universities to make sure lower-income students can attend. For universities who do not get enough in research grants to turn a decent profit now won’t really raise the rate higher than they can afford.
  • Students will not pay up front. In fact, part-time students are exempted from this, whereas they were not before.
  • Most students will not have to pay more. This is the contentious one: but, if the proposed plans of repayment (raising the threshold from £15k to £21k) go through, and if Clegg is to be believed, most students will pay less.

Don’t get me wrong; I fully support the abolition of tuition fees, along with a stronger budget for education. The West Wing character Sam Seaborn captures my kind of views perfectly in the episode “Six Meetings Before Lunch”:

Education is everything. We don’t need little changes. We need gigantic monumental changes. Schools should be palaces. The competition for the best teachers should be fierce. They should be making six-figure salaries. School should be incredibly expensive for government and absolutely free of charge to its citizens, just like national defense.

However, I find the conduct of the “pledge-breakers”: i.e. those who will vote for the rise (I’ll forgive abstentions, especially in the Cabinet); to be disgusting. But I hate misinformation more.

Now, from the misinformation and onto Labour. Current Labour policy is to oppose everything the Tories are doing, on matter of the principle of being in opposition. Fair enough. But it was not the Tories who commissioned the Browne Review. It was the Labour government, back last Autumn. When they knew their days in government were numbered. So, Labour pushed through a review that will suggest increasing fees and let the Tories clean up the mess. And they would’ve voted to raise fees even if, by some miracle, they were still in power; that’s why they commissioned a review in the first place. It’s Machiavellian, really.

Among Labour’s “party of no” policy (which, admittedly, worked for the Republicans so well), they’re courting the student vote back, using one of their party organs, the NUS: a recent YouGov poll has Labour on 42% among students. While organised students, like organised labour, is a Good Thing—I support the current occupation of the Michael Sadler building, at my university, Leeds—like so many unions, the NUS have become indistinguishable from a Labour slush fund. In the past thirty years, Labour have controlled the NUS for twenty-four. In 1996, NUS President Jim Murphy MP publicly supported the introduction of tuition fees to align the NUS with Labour policy (and suspending his vice-president along the way). And the NUS currently support a decapitation strategy, aimed solely at Liberal Democrat MPs.

Let us not forget the Higher Education Act 2004. Back in 2001, the Labour Manifesto contained the following quote:

We will not introduce ‘top-up’ fees and have legislated to prevent them.

Obviously, this manifesto promise was outright broken. On January 27 2004, the Government voted 315–310 to introduce tuition fees, at the second reading of the HEA 2004. Among the MPs who voted for it include many familiar faces in the Brown and Miliband Shadow Cabinet, including Ms. Harman, who has lambasted Clegg on even thinking about raising tuition fees several times recently. Unsurprisingly, however, the NUS don’t seem to be attacking those MPs. There are 146 MPs who have been in the Commons since 2001. 28 of them voted against the HEA 2004. 2 of them—Helen Jones, and Alan Meale—were absent (but if the NUS can count abstentions as support, then so can I). The remaining 116 are listed below, in alphabetical order:

  • Bob Ainsworth
  • Douglas Alexander
  • Graham Allen
  • Kevin Barron
  • Hugh Bayley
  • Margaret Beckett
  • Anne Begg
  • Stuart Bell
  • Hilary Benn
  • Joe Benton
  • Clive Betts
  • Hazel Blears
  • David Blunkett
  • Ben Bradshaw
  • Kevin Brennan
  • Gordon Brown
  • Nick Brown
  • Russell Brown
  • Chris Bryant
  • Karen Buck
  • Richard Burden
  • Andy Burnham
  • Liam Byrne
  • David Cairns
  • Alan Campbell
  • Ronnie Campbell
  • Tom Clarke
  • Ann Clwyd
  • Vernon Coaker
  • Ann Coffey
  • Yvette Cooper
  • Jim Cunningham
  • Tony Cunningham
  • Alistair Darling
  • Wayne David
  • Geraint Davies
  • John Denham
  • Brian Donohoe
  • Frank Doran
  • Jim Dowd
  • Angela Eagle
  • Maria Eagle
  • Clive Efford
  • Frank Field
  • Jim Fitzpatrick
  • Caroline Flint
  • Hywel Francis
  • Mike Gapes
  • Barry Gardiner
  • Paul Goggins
  • Peter Hain
  • David Hamilton
  • Fabian Hamilton
  • David Hanson
  • Harriet Harman
  • Tom Harris
  • John Healey
  • Stephen Hepburn
  • David Heyes
  • Margaret Hodge
  • Jimmy Hood
  • George Howarth
  • Huw Irranca-Davies
  • Alan Johnson
  • Kevan Jones
  • Tessa Jowell
  • Eric Joyce
  • Gerald Kaufman
  • David Lammy
  • Chris Leslie
  • Denis MacShane
  • Fiona Mactaggart
  • Khalid Mahmood
  • John Mann
  • Gordon Marsden
  • Steve McCabe
  • Siobhain McDonagh
  • Anne McGuire
  • Ann McKechin
  • David Miliband
  • Andrew Miller
  • Austin Mitchell
  • Jim Murphy
  • Paul Murphy
  • Sandra Osborne
  • Stephen Pound
  • Dawn Primarolo
  • Nick Raynsford
  • John Robertson
  • Geoffrey Robinson
  • Frank Roy
  • Chris Ruane
  • Joan Ruddock
  • Jim Sheridan
  • Marsha Singh
  • Andrew Smith
  • John Spellar
  • Jack Straw
  • Graham Stringer
  • Gisela Stuart
  • Gerry Sutcliffe
  • Mark Tami
  • Stephen Timms
  • Derek Twigg
  • Stephen Twigg
  • Keith Vaz
  • Joan Walley
  • Tom Watson
  • David Watts
  • Alan Whitehead
  • Malcolm Wicks
  • David Winnick
  • Rosie Winterton
  • Shaun Woodward
  • David Wright
  • Iain Wright

This is my request to the NUS: if you want to be taken seriously, stop the partisan bullshit. Distance yourself from Labour, and its illiberal, non-progressive viewpoints. Represent the students. Or face more disaffiliations, like Imperial or Durham, and more autonomous universities with real grassroots support (such as many anti-cuts groups). And my request to Labour: don’t fool yourself that you care about the students, because you don’t. Admit it, and if you do care about us, then introduce a bill abolishing tuition fees at the next Opposition Day or by way of EDM. If you don’t, then we’ll just have to assume that you’re as bad as the rest of them.

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