EXCLUSIVE: What Lib Dem members think about Browne and tuition fees

Lib Dem Voice has polled our members-only forum to discover what Lib Dem party members think of the party’s reponse to The Browne Report into higher education funding and student finance in England. Some 567 party members have responded, and we’ll be publishing the full results of our survey this weekend.

How you want higher education to be funded

First, we asked: How would you prefer higher education is funded?

Here’s what you told us:

  • 54% – Through general taxation (as was the case before 1998)
  • 26% – Tuition fees paid by students after they have graduated according to their earnings (as proposed)
  • 3% – Tuition fees paid by students after they have graduated (as now)
  • 12% – A graduate tax
  • 6% – Other
  • (Excluding Don’t know / No opinion (2%))

A majority (54%) of Lib Dem members, therefore, endorse current party policy as re-affirmed again this week by the Federal Policy Committee.

However, it’s noticeable that, though 54% back higher education funded through general taxation, a significant minority — 29% combined — of party members back tuition fees paid back by students after they have graduated.

Somewhat surprisingly (at least to me), the idea of a graduate tax gained little backing among Lib Dems, with only one-in-eight members opting for it. Of those who chose ‘Other’, many wanted a combination of the options provided, while some felt we needed to look at the structure of higher education more fundamentally before deciding how it is paid for.

Here’s a few of your comments:

We made a pledge not increase tuition fees. We claimed that our manifesto was fully costed and expected students and voters to trust our party on our pledge. We must not go back on what we agreed, otherwise it would take away our integrity as a party.

Increasing funding to universities is the only way they can expand and therefore increase access to people from poorer backgrounds. The public would not accept an increase in taxation on the scale required to pay for this, and it would be unfair on those not attending university. So I am in favour of the Browne proposals, but ONLY on condition that there is significant additional support for poorer people while at uni, and a capped level of repayments. I would want to see the govt promising to review the system after 5-10 years to see if it has had the effect of widening access, and amend it if it hasn’t.

I believe that is it just that students pay for the advanced learning they get. If it’s free, it’s less valued.

This is only an issue if we want 50% or therabouts of people to go to uni. There is no evidence to suggest why so many should. if only 30% went, we could afford it. We should roll back from the idea that so many people need a degree in history when we have such a skill shortage in practical industry. We shouldalso divert people into socially useful courses by charging less for things like chemistry, nursing or engineering.

Too many people go to university – it is an indictment of the low standards achieved in schools that it takes a so-called “higher education” establishment to instil basic knowledge.

Funding through general taxation is the best option, but there would need to be a reduction in the number of students going to university.

I think that degrees are “degraded” nowadays. Anyone (provided they are prepared to work) could get one. In the past it was something special that only those specially capable would be able to do (and we could afford to pay for it through the state.)

We cannot afford to fund the hugely increased numbers of students from general taxation

Students gain more from their degree than the general public (regardless of income) so should pay more, but not all, of the cost.

Party policy is based on this for a reason of principle – equality of access – and practice – sending a message to those from the poorest backgrounds that it really IS free.

Could you consider supporting The Browne Report’s findings?

We also asked: Are there any changes to the plans announced to date which would make you more likely to support recommendations based on The Browne Report?

Here’s what you told us…

  • 41% – No, there is nothing that would persuade me to support a package which includes increased tuition fees
  • 7% – No, I support the main thrust of the scheme as proposed by Browne

Of the 52% of Lib Dem party members who are open to persuasion, these are the changes you would want to see:

  • 35% – Increasing the maximum level of maintenance grant to students from families with lower earnings, and increasing the number of families who would benefit (Browne proposes grants of £3,250 per year for students from families with earnings below £25,000; with partial grants for students from families with earnings up to £60,000)
  • 35% – Variable rates of interest for graduates dependent on their future earnings, with zero or nominal rates for lower-earning graduates and higher rates for top-earning graduates (Browne proposes a flat rate of interest, which would currently be c.5%)
  • 23% – Unpaid student debt to be written off after (say) 25 years, rather than 30 years as Browne proposes
  • 22% – A cap on tuition fees so that no university can charge more than the £7k being considered by the Coalition
  • 21% – A lower level of tuition fee than the £7k being considered by the Coalition
  • 19% – Increasing the earnings threshold at which graduates would begin to pay back their debt from the £21k proposed by Browne to a higher level
  • 18% – Increasing the level of maintenance loans available to students (Browne proposes £3,750 per year loans be available to all students)
  • 11% – Other
  • (Excluding Don’t know / No opinion (4%))

A significant minority of Lib Dem members (41%) are, it is clear, wholly opposed to any increase in tuition fees whatsoever.

However, a slim majority of party members (52%) are prepared to consider supporting The Browne Report if one or more of the changes listed above are included. A small minority (7%) are fully in favour of The Browne Report’s recommendations as they stand, and see no need for changes to it.

This result was a genuine surprise to me, given the overwhelming tenor of online debate, here on Lib Dem Voice and elsewhere, has been in trenchant opposition to Browne. Our survey suggests that party members are not as implacably opposed to an increase in tuition fees as some of those heated debates would indicate — though members’ willingness even to consider supporting Browne is contingent on a series of changes which we do not yet know if the Coalition will bring forward.

The most popular change to Browne among Lib Dem members is increasing the maximum level of maintenance grant to students from families with lower earnings, and increasing the number of families who would benefit; together with the proposal it is understood Vince Cable will propose on behalf of the Coalition — that there will be variable rates of interest to ensure higher-earning graduates re-pay more than lower-earning graduates.

Might significant movement on both those issues be enough to persuade enough Lib Dems to back the Coalition’s plans? We shall see.

  • Over 1,200 Lib Dem paid-up party members are registered with LibDemVoice.org. 567 responded to the latest survey, which was conducted between 13th and 15th October.
  • Please note: we make no claims that the survey is fully representative of the Lib Dem membership as a whole. However, LibDemVoice.org’s surveys are the largest independent samples of the views of Lib Dem members across the country, and have in the past accurately predicted the results of the contest for Party President, and the conference decision to approve the Coalition agreement.
  • The full archive of our members’ surveys can be viewed at www.libdemvoice.org/category/ldv-members-poll
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41 Comments

  • It seems there is a strong tendency to suggest reducing the amount of students if to be paid from general taxation. Which I agree with. I wonder how well THAT would have gone down with the student voters?

  • Here’s what you told us:
    •54% – Through general taxation (as was the case before 1998)
    •26% – Tuition fees paid by students after they have graduated according to their earnings (as proposed)

    A significant minority of Lib Dem members (41%) are, it is clear, wholly opposed to any increase in tuition fees whatsoever.

    This result was a genuine surprise to me, given the overwhelming tenor of online debate, here on Lib Dem Voice and elsewhere, has been in trenchant opposition to Browne. Our survey suggests that party members are not as implacably opposed to an increase in tuition fees as some of those heated debates would indicate —

    Cognitive dissonance in action. Pretending all is well and closing ranks will not work. This WILL be an issue on the doorstep and even those who support Nick and Vince’s damaging U-Turn have to accept that.

    Presenting the results strarkly, plainly in a table with no accompanying narrative spin for the Fee rise and Leadership position would have been far more honest and, to use the soundbite word du jour, ‘fair’.

  • LDV Bob just because you don’t agree with the outcome of a survey doesn’t make the figures into “spin”

  • terence kelley 16th Oct '10 - 9:15am

    So 26% are ready to ditch policies formed before the election ?

    I sort of expect politicians to ditch their principles in the nema of expediency.

    But 1in 4 members to drop their principles is more shocking.

  • Terence – we are a democratic party so 26% disagreeing with a particular policy is not unusual.

  • John Richardson 16th Oct '10 - 9:25am

    This result was a genuine surprise to me, given the overwhelming tenor of online debate, here on Lib Dem Voice and elsewhere, has been in trenchant opposition to Browne.

    The fundamental problem is that the debate is generally not about whether Browne is a good package or not it is about THAT unequivocal pledge and the integrity of the party. I dare say without the pledge support for the package would be much higher as it is an improvement on what we have now, even if not ideal. Lib Dem MPs can not honourably vote for an increase in tuition fees until there has been another election – no matter how good the overall package is.

  • Anthony Aloysius St 16th Oct '10 - 9:36am

    “The fundamental problem is that the debate is generally not about whether Browne is a good package or not it is about THAT unequivocal pledge and the integrity of the party.”

    I agree. I was pleasantly surprised by the Browne recommendations. But nearly all the MPs gave a written pledge to vote against any increase in fees.

    As so often, LDV refrained from asking the most awkward question:
    ‘Before the election nearly all the Lib Dem MPs gave the following written commitment: ‘“I pledge to vote against any increase in fees in the next parliament and to pressure the government to introduce a fairer alternative”. Should they do as they promised, or should they break their word?’

  • David Matthewman 16th Oct '10 - 9:44am

    Anthony: no, they didn’t (I realise you had no way of knowing that), and I await the results of that part of the survey with interest.

  • @LDK

    On the contrary, the figures are broadly what I expect and extremely valuable.
    I have no trouble with the figures which is precisely why I highlighted them.

    I merely suggested that printing them with such an obvious accompanying narrative ‘spin’ was counterproductive and somewhat artless. A table with the questions and results in full on their own would have been preferable. That way those who wished to use and cull those figures they found most useful to support whichever side of the argument they wished to highlight could easily use them as a source material for future articles.

    The raw data counts more than an narrative.

    Though it is astonishing that a simple and straightforward,
    ‘Do you agree with Nick breaking the Party’s Pledge on tuition fees ?’ Yes/No
    question was not thought valuble enough to be included.
    As that will be how unquestionably be how the vast majority of the public sees it on the doorstep rather than as a menu of different funding options.

  • terence kelley 16th Oct '10 - 10:34am

    LDK
    “Terence – we are a democratic party so 26% disagreeing with a particular policy is not unusual.”

    IF you were a democratic party you leadership would be following the majority view. Which according to the poll is 54%.

    I take your point though, what was the percentage of disagreeing voices when the resolution was passed at your party conference ?

  • Anthony Aloysius St 16th Oct '10 - 10:42am

    “Anthony: no, they didn’t (I realise you had no way of knowing that), and I await the results of that part of the survey with interest.”

    Good – I’m pleased to hear that, though in that case I’m puzzled by its omission from the article above.

  • Terence it was passed on sight – there had to be no count of delegate votes as far as I’m aware.

  • The analysis of the results is very disingenious and kind of shows that Lib Dem Voice has a slant to support the party at all costs.

    41% will never support brown/ cable and Clegg 7% think they have got it right. Thats 93% of the party disagreeing with the Clegg and Cable Policy . can you get any more fundimental disagreement than that ?

    Lib Dems as always try to ne helpful and suggest wasy to stop the leadreship drwoning in a mess of their own making . Which is why 52% look towrads face saving suggestions. The key here is that many of these face saving suggestions would mean that the overall student contribution would not be increased . That the increase in fees would be ploughed striaght back in other ways and overall fees would not be incereased just distributed more fairly . So please DO NOT claim that our generous members giving offering Vince and Nick a fig leaf are in any way giving them support. I actually ticked a box to make the scheme better (extending the amounts of grants and loans) while still voting against the overall scheme as I had a suspicion teh figures would be spun like this.

    LET ME JUST REPEAT THE FINDINGS OF YOUR SUVERY 93% OF MEMBER DISAGREE WITH OUR LEADERSHIPS PROPSALS . NOW THAT AS IT STANDS IS AN UTTER CATASTOPHY AND A TOTAL DISREGARDS OF THE MEMBERSHIPS FEELINGS .

  • @ Stephen tall
    Techical point when you state the % of people giving support to each improvement was it (For example with increasing grants) 35% of the 52% who wanted improvements or 35% of the 100% who answered the survey ?

  • The casual reader might easily miss the fact that according to the survey 71% do not support tuition fees. These surveys have just become exercises in party management and spin. The tactic is clear – draw people into the debating how Browne can be improved and then claim this shows a majority willing to support the report if some adjustments are made thereby subtly giving the impression that those who oppose tuition fees are in a minority. These surveys should just be published without spin. People are rightly angry – now is not the time to insult their intelligence as well.

  • Hywel ap Dafydd 16th Oct '10 - 12:33pm

    “41% will never support brown/ cable and Clegg 7% think they have got it right. Thats 93% of the party disagreeing with the Clegg and Cable Policy . can you get any more fundimental disagreement than that ?”

    John Fraser – did you take a degree in sophistry?

    First of all as the notes underneath the article state “we make no claims that the survey is fully representative of the Lib Dem membership as a whole.”

    Secondly your 93% includes people who responded with “Don’t know / no opinion”. I don’t know how you can deduce from that response that they oppose the Browne Report.

    Finally the 93% does not tally with the initial question which showed that 26% of respondents supported funding of Higher Education through Tuition Fees.

    You damage your own position by such naked manipulation of the survey results.

  • Anthony Aloysius St 16th Oct '10 - 12:35pm

    “LET ME JUST REPEAT THE FINDINGS OF YOUR SUVERY 93% OF MEMBER DISAGREE WITH OUR LEADERSHIPS PROPSALS .”

    Hmm. That wasn’t really an agree/disagree question, though. Maybe that’s still to come, like the question about whether MPs should honour their pledge.

    But it does look as though 74% would prefer something other than what Browne has recommended.

  • @Andrew and Steven

    My thoughts precisely Andrew.

    I would be really keen Steve if you explain your thoughts behind the editorial with the article i was really hoping Lib Dem Voice would not take the black is white and white is black approach , and the fact that it appears that you have makes me rather depressed and thinking that any effort to re-democratise the party is becoming rather hopeless. Ofcourse you could redraft or appendix if you have said some things in haste
    ….
    e.g. However, a slim majority of party members (52%) are prepared to consider supporting The Browne Report if one or more of the changes listed above are included.
    …………
    This is clearly wrong because if those changes were made it WOULD NOT be the Brown report that was being accepted .

  • @ Hywel ap Dafydd
    Agreed Hywell i went too far . There was perhaps an ironic urge to show how the results can be shown in the other extreme . He spun it first so i spun back is not very mature 🙂

    The point i was making which I believe still stands is that these results show a clear majority against Brown without major and very expensive changes .

  • The question should of been a simple one with a yes/no answer.
    74% of those surveyed say they do not support the Browne proposals, well that seems pretty clear, shame it wasn’t actually stated in the article itself, breaking down those 74% into categories is just an attempt to muddy the waters (and a transparent one at that)

  • @Stephen Tall

    You say some 567 members responded. Could you tell us what percentage of party membership that is?

  • Malcolm Todd 16th Oct '10 - 3:15pm

    @jayu

    It’ll be about one per cent. That’s pretty irrelevant, though – 567 is enough to form a statistically valid sample of a much larger group (we generally accept public opinion poll finding, based on samples of about 1,000 out of 40 million voters). The important question is, how *representative* is this sample of party membership as a whole; and I don’t think they have any chance of being able to answer that. In short, it’s not a valid survey of Lib Dem membership as a whole; it’s a pretty good survey (about 50%, I think) of members of the LDV members’ forum. God knows what that tells us.

  • It’s one thing to have a line on the manifesto and quite another to make a solemn pledge, campaign on the issue, gain votes and seats as a result and then far from abstaining to actually supporting tuition fees and indeed being the face of the change and leading it in commons and the country. What did your survey say about that?

  • “it’s not a valid survey of Lib Dem membership as a whole”

    I think it is, especially if you give it a generous margin of error of say + or – 10. you can still draw some pretty solid conclusions, for instance you can still say with confidence that the Party membership as a whole does not support the Browne report.

  • Roy's Claret Army 16th Oct '10 - 5:10pm

    I think this article shows us that the editors of this site will stop at nothing in order to do their leader’s bidding and secure a fruitful political career for themselves.

  • Anthony Aloysius St 16th Oct '10 - 6:08pm

    It does seem very odd to publish the results of “Could you consider supporting The Browne Report’s findings?” before those of “Do you support The Browne Report’s findings?” That’s if the latter question was asked at all, of course.

  • George Kendall wrote –
    “we should treat the results with a little caution. I would imagine that members of LDV would generally be younger, more likely to be male, more interested in technology. The wider membership may be a little different”

    And how exactly would that make a difference? genuine question as I can’t for the life of me understand why being male and an ability to use a keyboard would make a difference.

    Stephen Tall wrote-
    “I’m somewhat amused by those commenters who seem to think that a blog shouldn’t include the views of the author”

    When you ask people for their opinions I believe you are under an obligation to report those findings objectively not subjectively, otherwise anyone would think your trying to ‘spin’ the results.

  • Well, I was one of the 52% who said I might possibly be persuaded to support a fees scheme, but only after I’d ticked most of the boxes and added some more ideas of my own! It looks from this thread as if that was a widespread view.

    The technocratic nature of that part of the survey, with its multiple complex potential concessions, does not help. Let me make it simpler.

    We signed a pledge. There could only be one good reason not to stick to the pledge. That would be if we could strike a deal with the Tories which was widely accepted – by the anti-fees campaigners, and outside our own party – as a better option than sticking to the pledge. If such a deal is not attainable – and sadly, Clegg’s actions have made pretty certain that it will not be – then we have to stick to the pledge.

    I am struck by the naive simplicity of Ming Campbell’s remarks about how one’s credibility would be shot to pieces if one went back on a pledge one had been filmed signing. However, it wasn’t Ming who was being naive. It was the audience he was addressing. Had Ming had a different manner of speaking, it might have been expressed as “Look, guys, FFS listen to me when I’m telling you the bleeding obvious!”

  • John Fraser 17th Oct '10 - 1:02pm

    @Steven tall and @ Roy’s Claret Army
    Roy I guess you may not be a Liberal democrat (apologises if I am wrong) and thats fine. Your comments do though go a little far though as mine did earlier and indicate you may not know the true nature of the party. . i can and have been disapointed by the the complacency shown on some of the LDV editorial blogs on the the serious anger coalition policies are causing within the party. Trust me though very few in the party have a ‘career path’ most work on a voluntary basis for very little reward.

    Steven a blog can and should include the views of the writer (otherwise it wouldn’t be worth reading )> it is a shame there is not a member of LDV who happens to be more critical of the coalition . This gives the impresson sometimes of one sided debate . BUT a commentary on an opinion poll should not be seen a s a blog . I should be kept as objective as possible when this poll is about something that is driving a lot of party members to dispair this becomes more important still.

  • John Fraser 17th Oct '10 - 1:09pm

    @Steven tall and everyone else for that matter.

    @ John Fraser — “when you state the % of people giving support to each improvement was it (For example with increasing grants) 35% of the 52% who wanted improvements or 35% of the 100% who answered the survey ?”

    Fair question — it was 35% of the 52%. (So more or less 70% of those who were persuadable.)
    ……..

    Thanks for clarification Steven. It would be difficult to statistically prove this for sure but if 70% of the ‘persuadables’ alone are asking for increasing grants and various other fairly high percentages asking for other things . It really is quite possible that to make the persuables happy would actually cost more than simply not increasing fees.

    As there appears to be none of those things on offer at present I believe it would be acceptable to conclude that there is a danger of most of these persuadables becoming anti. Though the coming few days will clarify this.

  • Mark Sherratt 17th Oct '10 - 1:24pm

    This result was a genuine surprise to me, given the overwhelming tenor of online debate, here on Lib Dem Voice and elsewhere, has been in trenchant opposition to Browne. Our survey suggests that party members are not as implacably opposed to an increase in tuition fees as some of those heated debates would indicate — though members’ willingness even to consider supporting Browne is contingent on a series of changes which we do not yet know if the Coalition will bring forward.

    41% are opposed, 7% are in favour, you would need to garner 43% +1 votes to switch from ‘wavering’ to ‘in favour’ in order to win the case.

    In other words you need to pursuade more people to switch from ‘maybe’ to ‘yes’ than the entire ‘no’ vote. That in my opinion is pretty trenchant opposition!

    Of the 52% of people who might be pursuaded to back Browne you need to attract a whopping 83% without offering a concession that might actually put off the other 17%.

    Please stop trying to spin bad polling results and restore some honesty to the debate.

  • Andrew McCaig 17th Oct '10 - 9:42pm

    Hello everyone,

    I have never posted here before but I have been a member of the Lib Dems and before that the Liberals since the early 1980’s, and at various times a local councillor and a general election constituency organiser (in Leeds NW in 1997 – not a good year, but we won the student vote!). My father was Chairman of the Sheffield Liberals and stood several times for council in Sheffield Hallam wards in the days when no-one could dream there would ever be a Liberal MP, let alone a “Deputy Prime Minister” there. I am the nearest thing to an “instinctive” Liberal Democrat you are likely to find.
    However I have today penned a letter to Simon Hughes resigning from the party likely hereafter to be known as “the Pledgebreakers”. How can anyone expect any elector to believe a Lib Dem candidate again after this? Even abstention is not enough, and was a big mistake in the coalition agreement. Thousands of voters registered for the first time because they believed Clegg wanted a “new form of politics”. How many of them will ever vote again?
    It is completely disingenuous for Clegg and Cable to claim this U-turn is necessary because of the deficit. No money will be paid up front so no revenue can possibly be raised from the extra fees (other than by borrowing aginst them) until after the 4 year planning period for deficit reduction. This is the main objection raised to the graduate tax, and applies equally to the Browne proposals. Personally I would introduce a retrospective graduate tax, and I would gladly pay it for the remainder of my working life. That would actually make a contribution to the deficit (and the argument that we cannot find the graduates is also specious – it would be a pretty big thing to make a false declaration about on your tax return).
    Of course no-one will be more pleased than the Tories (except possibly Labour!) that they have manouvered Clegg and Cable into breaking this pledge. Talk about Greek gifts! The parliamentary party need to stick 100% to the pledge by voting AGAINST any increase in fees in this parliament, and dare the Tories to bring down the coalition on this issue. This is the only way the party can survive politically..
    I fear my father is turning in his Sheffield Hallam grave at the actions of his MP, who promised so much

    Andrew McCaig

  • Andrew Wimble 18th Oct '10 - 11:54am

    My feeling is that as a junior partner in the Coillition we only have limited scope to oppose the Browne report that is supported by the Tories. Rather that a futile effort to try and force through Lib-Dem policies I think we should be willing to suupport the Tory proposals, providing that they lead to an increase in fairness over the current system. That means that proposals should both help those from poor backgrounds gain access to higher education, and ensure that graduates that do not go on to highly paid careers pay back any loans at an affordable, reduced rate.

  • Noel Thompson 18th Oct '10 - 2:23pm

    I suggest some members might read today’s Guardian and realise that their mindset, so well decibed there, which sees our party as a perpetual sidelines sniping organisation rather than part of a government, is unrealistic and is not how those of us who have toiled for years to try to get many Liberal and Democratic policies into law see as our fervent wish.Tribalism which craves purity of ideals and Party Image as more important than parties co-operating in the national interest in time of crisis and with no mandate for rule by one party, is impotent..Please look again, friends, at your priorities! Hold firm! We should not drop our policies but negotiate from our power balancing strength to see them into adoption over the timescale of this and future parliaments. If you must point the finger at broken pledges point it at the history of the last several decades of post-war governments. Politics, being the art of the possible, makes ‘we must have all our desires met here and now or we’ll withdraw from the field’ remote from reality and has nothing to do with liberalism or democracy.

  • says the article >>>

    Here’s what you told us:

    •54% – Through general taxation (as was the case before 1998)

    That is all that matters. The majority refuted any possibility of suporting increases and opted to remain true to re-eledction promises and pledges.

    The rest is merely manipulative waffle , secured by the seductive sweetener that voters can chuck a few ideas in.

    Sounds like the way the Tories run a coalition… you know , they offer an inducement of Parliamentrry electoral reform, knowing full well their own hard right and all the labour party will vote it down. Net result the LibDem party gets dumped. gains zero in terms of electoral viability , and is landed with a reputation as being Cameron’s little plaything discarded after the coalition outlives its usefulness.

    For God’s ( or maybe Gladstone’s) sake wake up. LibDems will not gain electoral reform or advantage. Cameron will suspend a party whip as the matter will be deemed to be ‘of supreme constitutional importance and thus a mattter of conscience.’ ( we will have to explain that ‘conscience’ thing to Libdems along the way ) . Thus , the LibDems get screwed. They bolster a government intent that tthe masses should pay for the greedy mistakes of very wealthy speculators , and then get shafted when the time comes for those ‘masses’ to allocate blame and award votes.
    Make no mistake…The LibDems will be clearly identified by all involved as those who enabled, allowed , and realised tory policies. They will also be clearly identified as a party to punish by voting against them.

    Obviously , like all LibDem policy this will suit the tories, so the LibDems will once again fulfil their purpose.

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