Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Liberal Democrats against tuition fees

I am proud that the Liberal Democrats have a long history of standing against tuition fees and supporting inclusive Higher Education.

Whatever the confused rhetoric of the coalition government on tuition fees and the broader question of Higher Education, the Lib Dems are still a party which supports the principle of abolishing tuition fees, as witnessed at the Scottish Lib Dem conference when a huge majority of party activists and members rejected increasing tuition fees.

Most of our grassroots members are more than uncomfortable with the shape government policy on Higher Education is taking. We did not campaign at the General Election for the regressive, discriminatory and simplistic remedies of the Browne Review.

We believe in a Higher Education system that is genuinely fair. We believe that education should be open to all. As the great Liberal Prime Minister Herbert Asquith said: "a man is not free until he has the opportunities and means for education". The policy being proposed would remove these opportunities for many - and in our view that's not acceptable.

Only yesterday, over 100 Lib Dem parliamentary candidates urged Nick Clegg to oppose plans to increase tuition fees: Lib Dem candidates urge rethink on tuition fees (The Guardian, 29/11/10) This might not be the most sensible tactic in respect to maintaining party unity at the current time, but it reinforces the fact that we broadly remain a party opposed to tuition fees.

It's not just the grassroots activists who are unhappy with the government's policy. Some Lib Dem MPs, like Party President Tim Farron, have been outspoken in their opposition to increasing tuition fees; even if we are realistic enough to recognise that coalition requires compromise and that some of the changes being proposed are preferable to the status quo, we also value our distinct principles and beliefs as well as party integrity. Tim Farron accepts that Vince Cable has helped "improve the package" but that "people like me feel that it's not right to go against what we said [when] making a pledge". This is something that would strike a chord with many ordinary party members.

As Margaret Smith MSP pointed out at our Scottish conference, Liberal Democrats also see that the beneficiaries of Higher Education are not only the graduates themselves but also wider society. Any truly fair and progressive system of funding Higher Education should also be equipped to tackle current inequalities in education, rather than exacerbate them.

I have started a facebook group: Liberal Democrats against tuition fees. I would invite all like-minded people to join.

1 comment:

Andrew said...

I sent the following e-mail to Tim Farron:

Dear Tim,

Just a quick e-mail to thank you for you consistent and principled stand on the issue of HE fees. We go back far enough for you to appreciate where I stand on this issue, and why. While I fully accept the need for compromise within the coalition, that doesn't negate the need for a full debate within both the party and the Commons.

I accept what you say in regards Vince Cable having made the proposals "more progressive" but that you feel the need to honour your pledge to your constituents; however, the issue is wider than simply whether or not Lib Dem MPs should honour their pledges (however important that is in itself). My own particular interests of widening access to professions such as medicine and increasing participation at postgraduate level will NOT be helped by the new policy, and it is regrettable that Alan Milburn's praiseworthy report into the former has been largely ignored.

I reluctantly accept that these plans are slightly "more progressive" than the status quo in relation to undergraduates studying their first degree. However, for those who wish to retrain (as I did, in regards my medical studies) and those who wish to study postgraduate courses (as I am now doing), the increase in fees really will deny opportunities to many.

A final word - however imperfect the Scottish system is, in is infinitely better than anything being proposed currently for England. One weakness with the coalition's thinking in 1999 was the understandable but mistaken emphasis on tuition fees, rather than a wider review of how to make the Scottish HE system more effective. I may be wrong, but I feel a similar misplaced emphasis will not help either HE institutions or students.

Thanks again for consistently arguing for what is, after all, Lib Dem party policy!