Two years on from the tuition fees U-turn – what do Lib Dem members think now?

Lib Dem Voice polled our members-only forum recently to discover what Lib Dem members think of various political issues, the Coalition, and the performance of key party figures. Some 550 party members have responded, and we’re publishing the full results.

7-in-10 say new fees system is fairer than old


LDV asked: Overall do you think the new tuition fees system introduced by the Coalition Government is fairer or less fair than the system it replaced?

    70% – Fairer
    21% – Less fair
    10% – Don’t know

A substantial majority of Lib Dem members in our survey say the new system introduced by the Coalition is fairer than the fees system it replaced, introduced by Labour.

This finding comes with three important caveats. First, many of those who said it’s fairer than the old system were clear in their comments that they did not believe it was the fairest system possible (although many acknowledged it may have been the fairest that was achievable within the constraints of Coalition). Secondly, many said the way the new fees system had been presented both by the Government and by its opponents meant that, even if it’s fairer, potential students may well still be put off going to university as a result. And thirdly, that regardless of its fairness the Lib Dems are long going to have the millstone of ‘that pledge’ round our necks.

Nonetheless, that 70% of current members reckon the system is fairer suggests that the issue is less about the merits of the policy and more about the politics and perceptions of it. Here’s a sample of your views:

It genuinely doesn’t matter how it’s structured, it is a substantial debt with which to begin life; meanwhile we need more skilled people in order to ensure our economy is viable. A deterrent has been inadvertently created and this is a tragedy.

The new fees are fairer, not that we’ll get any credit. The fact that we pledged to do something then immediately did the opposite has brought our party into disrepute.

Loaded question, it might be more affordable and is probably quite a reasonable system. Fair would depend on your own circumstances.

As someone who will be paying back my future tuition fees under the new system, it looks much better to me!

It’s fairer – but sold very badly. If it had been labelled as a tax, it would have gone down a lot better.

Majority of members say drop commitment to scrap fees

Current Lib Dem policy remains to scrap tuition fees. Some members say this policy should be dropped in advance of the next general election as it will not be seen as credible to the public. Other members say the right to free higher education is a crucial Lib Dem policy and should be retained, even if it is unlikely to be implemented while in Coalition with either the Conservatives or Labour. What is your view?

    51% – I think we should drop the party’s commitment to scrap tuition fees
    43% – I think we should keep the party’s commitment to scrap tuition fees
    6% – Don’t know

A clear but narrow majority (51%) of Lib Dem members in our survey think the party should drop its long-held commitment to scrapping tuition fees in the light of the U-turn on fees within Coalition. However, a very substantial minority (43%) argue the party should keep the commitment. In effect, the party is split on the issue — an issue which will become a major subject for debate at next year’s autumn conference (somewhat ironically being held in Scotland, where the system doesn’t apply and the Lib Dems have maintained the party’s anti-fees stance).

Interestingly, there is very little difference between the views of voting conference representatives and all other party members — if anything, those who are eligible to vote appear to be slightly more inclined to drop the commitment:

Current voting representativesAll other party members
I think we should drop the party’s commitment to scrap tuition fees57%52%
I think we should keep the party’s commitment to scrap tuition fees43%45%
Don't know6%6%

Here’s a sample of your views:

Keep it – BUT, we must make it absolutely clear how it is to be financed AND that we will not be able to implement it unless we have an overall majority. NO PLEDGE

We should replace ‘scrap’ with ‘reduce in the long term, as affordable’. That would be much more credible.

This is the biggest “red line” issue for me: scrapping fees should be our Number 1 priority.

Drop it, though I actually think we should keep it – but doing so would make us look more like idiots than dropping it. It is too difficult to explain. Either way it is going to be an issue.

Definitely drop this. The problem was caused by going into the last election with an unrealistic policy which the leadership tried to change.

Nick Clegg’s apology: 81% say he was right to say sorry, but majority think it’ll make no difference

Before the Lib Dem conference, Nick Clegg apologised for making and then breaking the pledge not to vote for tuition fees. Do you think he was right or wrong to apologise?

    81% – Right to apologise
    15% – Wrong to apologise
    4% – Don’t know

And what impact, if any, do you think Nick Clegg’s apology will have on public perceptions of him?

    32% – It will make it more likely the public will listen to him
    54% – It will make no difference
    10% – It will make it less likely the public will listen to him
    4% – Don’t know

On the downside, more than half (54%) even of Lib Dem members think the apology will make no difference; on the upside, almost one-third (32%) say it might get Nick more of a hearing from the public in the future. Just 1-in-10 think it will have backfired.

What does come across loud and clear in the comments are those who say (1) Nick’s apology should have been for breaking the pledge rather than making it in the first place, and (2) that it was too little, too late. Whether these views are based on personal perceptions, or on the basis of what the public is saying on the doorstep, I’m not sure. Here’s a sample of your views…

He should have explained that the scheme is the graduate tax everyone wanted but described in such a way that is harder for the rich to avoid than tax. He should have explained what progressive means.

It lacked sincerity. Both he and Vince were clearly opposed to Lib Dem policy on this in the first place. They should, however, made it a red line issue in the Coalition Agreement.

I don’t think it made much difference, but was too little, too late. It would have been better to have supported the recent comments about the current scheme costing more by pointing out that it was in fact a good deal for students it was.

I guess right to apologise but the policy on fees is the right one. The massive political problem was the pledge which should never have been made.

I think he would have been damned if and whenever he did, and damned if he didn’t!

  • Over 1,200 Lib Dem paid-up party members are registered with LibDemVoice.org. Some 550 responded to the latest survey, which was conducted between 28th and 31st 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 offered accurate guides to what party members think.
  • For further information on the reliability/credibility of our surveys, please refer to FAQs: Are the Liberal Democrat Voice surveys of party members accurate? and polling expert Anthony Wells’ verdict, On that poll of Lib Dem members.
  • The full archive of our members’ surveys can be viewed at www.libdemvoice.org/category/ldv-members-poll
  • * 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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    24 Comments

    • I think the bigger issue is not what our members think, but the millions of young voters who voted Lib Dem because of our policies on tuition fees. Our U-Turn unfortunately did lose their trust and while a small core of our vote remains, with 8% in the polls seeming to be the lowest extent, we will continue to suffer. What will make this worse is the miscalculation in how much to charge leading to a massive black hole in university budgets meaning that re-payments will inevitably have to increase. While some members will be happy with the current system, it is not going to remain unchanged, and payments will have to increase, so this issue may be around for a few years to come!

      Just for the record I am a Lib Dem member, and vice-chair of Sheffield University Liberal Youth, though this is obviously me posting in a personal capacity :)

    • The massive political problem was the pledge which should never have been made.

      how many times have we been here before???

      There isn’t a single voter in the land that thinks there was a problem with the Lib Dems making a pledge. The electorate are slightly more sophisticated than that. The problem was breaking the pledge.

    • Grammar Police 13th Nov '12 - 3:09pm

      @Alex, don’t just accept “the millions of young voters who voted Lib Dem because of our policies on tuition fees” argument! It’s simply not true.

      Around 30% of all 18-25 year olds voted for us. Even on a 60% turnout (and I suspect it was lower), that amounts to the equivalent of around 800 people per constituency – not all of whom will be students, and not all of whom will have voted for us solely or mainly because of our position on fees.

      More young people voted for parties that supported raising fees than voted for us.

      This doesn’t mean we handled it well, and it doesn’t mean that getting rid of fees might not be the right thing to do generally, But we have to understand why the fees issues damaged us, and the false idea of “betraying millions of students voters” detracts from the real damage, which is much wider – and that is whether we can be trusted. Even people who’re happy with the new scheme might not like the fact our MPs broke a pledge.

    • The system may be fairer. The price of education now isn’t.

    • @Alex – you are absolutely right! Next election, I’ll be the one following Nick around (if he dares to stand) encouraging voters to support “Anyone but Nick!” (and I AM a TRUE LibDem)

    • paul barker 13th Nov '12 - 7:27pm

      Alex Nye
      voting intention polls do not predict the way people will vote in the next general election. Libdem “support” always falls between elections & nobody knows why. Even Yougov who give us the lowest figures only have us around 3% down, on average from where they put us 5 years ago.

    • Goodness knows if the new system is ‘fairer’, it depends how it works out and in the end how it is manipulated. What is clearer to me is that Nick Clegg’s apology heightens the impression that the new system is less fair.

      Given that a pledge was made, in political terms that issue has been appallingly handled. In the circumstances the fall back decision should have been no (or almost no) change, which would allow Lib Dems to underline that tuition fees are a Labour creation.

      To make the kind of change that was made really needs a build up of popular pressure to change the system, after which the change is effected. The propositions could have been left on the table as a potential option and only implemented once sufficient bi-partisan support had accumulated.

    • Matthew Huntbach 14th Nov '12 - 11:29am

      All the debate about this topic just has not faced up to the simple fact: the tuition fees are what university education costs. They are not bringing more money into universities, they are simply replacing what used to be provided as government subsidy.

      So, if tuition fees had not risen as they did, the money would still have to come form somewhere. That somewhere would have been direct government borrowing, whereas the loans system means they are now really paid for by indirect government borrowing. Direct government borrowing still means the same costs will have to be met by the next generation.

      Almost all the opposition to tuition fees I’ve seen ignores this. It is written as if government money really is “free”. I don’t think the current tuition fees system is particularly fair, but I do think anyone who opposes it ought to state firmly what their alternative would be. And not just a hand-waving “there must be some rich people somewhere we could tax for it”. No, it should be something which at least looks workable and would result in the money required being raised.

      So, just how many of those upper middle class kids holding banners reading “Stop the fees” or whatever would be willing to hold banners reading “Tax inheritance at the same rate as workers’ income”? Hmm? Yes, are they willing to put their money where their mouths are and forgo some of that big dollop of cash from mummy and daddy they are looking forward to?

    • The tuition fee/ university funding issue should question why society funds education at any level. Presumably it is assumed that there is a benefit to society and to the economy that a population is educated. Why should funding change at age 18? – Why not any other age?

      The new system is similar to a (voluntary?) hypothecated graduate tax, which could create difficulties in the future as it is bound to distort debates about tax as well as to weaken recognition of universities as a public service.

      As to death duties: a similar argument could be (and is) made for health care, where sickness is taxed at death. Is this really the direction we want to take?

      Health and education are provision that is tangible: people understand why they are paying taxes for these. There seems to be a movement for removing these from taxation (road pricing is another example). This will lead to taxation only for the amorphous intangibles – civil service administration, armed services, Trident – the sort of things for which people are reluctant to pay taxes – and understandably so. It will only fuel perceptions that government only wastes or is self serving and provides little.

    • “All the debate about this topic just has not faced up to the simple fact: the tuition fees are what university education costs. They are not bringing more money into universities, they are simply replacing what used to be provided as government subsidy.”

      Why do you think that? The Browne proposals would have resulted in a projected increase in university income of 2% if fees were £7000, and one of 10% if they were £8000. Reportedly they are currently £8500 on average.

    • “He should have explained that the scheme is the graduate tax everyone wanted but described in such a way that is harder for the rich to avoid than tax. He should have explained what progressive means.”

      Advocating lying was an option?

      1. Tuition fee are regressive. The rich pay less asa a proportion of their lifetime earnings. This statement is not an opinion, it is a fact, so please do not remove my comments again.

      2. Tuition fees are fees and are related to the cost of the course and not the ability to pay. They are not a tax.

    • @Matthew Huntbach

      Those upper middle class parents should be more than happy with the new system If their kids end up as high earners then it is likely they will contribute less to HE funding through their individual tuition fees than if they had to pay to the previous general taxation funding that was slashed by 80%.

      The whole tuition fees debate is predicated on a lie – that Labour massively increased the numbers of students going on to HE. The numbers acutally increased by around 35% (of the number in 1997) compared with an increase of around 175% under the Tories between 1979 and 1997. The biggest spike in student numbers occurred around 1989-1992, yet that increase wasn’t funded by any tuition fees. I didn’t like Thatcher and Major at the time, but they now appear to have been well to the left of the current government.

    • This is a disappointing result, though I take some solace in the fact that many think we should drop the commitment (which was fully costed in our last manifesto too) as being politically toxic for us rather than because they oppose free education.

      Ultimately, if we hypothecate fees, we may as well start up loans for school education, apprenticeships, and absolutely all aspects of engagement with the state. Then we would need a huge bureacracy, and we would be living in some kind of market socialism which would not breed liberty. Educational choices, whilst there may be a limit, should – for economic, liberal and educational reasons – be free.

    • @ Steve:
      “The biggest spike in student numbers occurred around 1989-1992″
      This coincided with the polytechnics becoming classified as Higher Education Institutions. Is this big spike really an increase, or a reclassification?

      “The rich pay less asa a proportion of their lifetime earnings. This statement is not an opinion, it is a fact, so please do not remove my comments”.
      Asserting something as a fact does not, of itself, make it a fact rather than simply a confidentally expressed opinion. However, I can’t find what you are contrasting fees to as a tax option, how you’re defining ‘rich’ and so on; so in the absence of evidence will have to assume it is an opinion. A valid opinion, but notthe hard, cold, irrefutable fact you’d like it to be

    • Matthew Huntbach 15th Nov '12 - 3:05pm

      Chris

      Why do you think that?

      Because I work in a university and I’m not getting paid any more and the university is not showing signs of having large amounts of money coming on tap to pay for other things either.

    • Matthew Huntbach 15th Nov '12 - 3:20pm

      Steve

      Tuition fee are regressive. The rich pay less asa a proportion of their lifetime earnings. This statement is not an opinion, it is a fact, so please do not remove my comments again.

      Yes, but if there were a flat rate graduate tax, the same would apply.

      Tuition fees are fees and are related to the cost of the course and not the ability to pay.

      The loans to pay them are an automatic entitlement, and repayment terms for these loans IS based on ability to pay. Indeed, the government is discovering that the exemptions from payment due to not earning enough which have been agreed amount to a much larger amount than was first supposed i.e. underneath, there is government subsidy.

      The reality is that the huge difference that is supposed between what we have now and what we had under Labour depends on the fiction that when the taxpayer pays it directly it’s “free”. I’ve actually heard people talk about it as if universities are now getting three times as much income as they used to, rather than a lot less direct taxpayer subsidy. So I think it’s only fair for those who object to say something about how they would fund the subsidy which is a corollary of their objection.

      The difficulty for those of us caught in the Liberal Democrats is that we recognise the current system is not quite as those outside have painted it – due to the loans being automatic and not reckoned as normal debt – but attempt to argue that sound as if we are fully in favour of it, which I know I’m not, in fact yes, I do accept your regressive point. However, when one keeps seeing it put about that “young people from poor families can’t afford to go to university because of the fees”, one gets angry because it’s a lie being used for political purposes which damages those it claims to be supporting. The loan and repayment system means they CAN afford to go to university. There are a lot of stories of young people not applying because they don’t realise that due to how they have been told misleading things by the LibDem-kickers.

    • @Stephen
      “This coincided with the polytechnics becoming classified as Higher Education Institutions. Is this big spike really an increase, or a reclassification?”

      It was a very large increase that was forced (funding would have been cut to institutions not taking on a vast increase in students) on the HE sector by the Tories and had nothing to do with the reclassification of polytechnics. If I can find a link to the figures I’ll post it.

      “Asserting something as a fact does not, of itself, make it a fact rather than simply a confidentally expressed opinion. ”

      It is blindingly obvious. Someone earning a career average of 100k per annum is going to pay a smaller proportion of their lifetime income than someone earning an average of 50k. In that example both earners will pay off the full loan (based on 3 years of 9k fees). For lower earners the system does become progressive because of the fact that the loans aren’t paid back. The average income threshold above which tuition fees become regressive is around 35k to 40k depending on the parameters you plug into the model for interest rates, wage inflation, etc.

      @Matthew Huntbach
      “Yes, but if there were a flat rate graduate tax, the same would apply.”

      A flat rate graduate tax would be proportional, not regressive.

      “The reality is that the huge difference that is supposed between what we have now and what we had under Labour depends on the fiction that when the taxpayer pays it directly it’s “free”. ”

      The comparison people care about isn’t between the previous system and the new, it is between the previous system and the abolition of fees as promised as a policy objective by the Lib Dems. I find it infuriating when people describe taxpayer funding of HE as ‘free’. However, this doesn’t detract from the fact that there are alternatives models of funding based on progressive general taxation, a graduate tax or a combination of a bit of both. A graduate tax and general taxation was rejected by the coalition in favour of fees, despite the Lib Dems history of advocating the other options.

      “young people from poor families can’t afford to go to university because of the fees”

      Yes, that is an inaccurate statement. However, it does not detract from the arguments against fees versus graduate tax and/or general taxation. My objections to the new fee system are based on an unfair burden being placed on the graduate (who will already more than pay for their own HE through general taxation on their increased earnings) and on those graduates on middle graduate incomes who get hit the hardest due to the regressivity of the system. The problem I have is that students from low to middle income families won’t aspire to go on to HE as a result of the low expectations of earnings. Even if they manage to find a graduate job they will be hit with a 9% marginal tax rate for the majority of their working lifetime. At least those from low earning backgrounds receive maintenance grants.

    • Matthew Huntbach 15th Nov '12 - 11:19pm

      Steve

      However, this doesn’t detract from the fact that there are alternatives models of funding based on progressive general taxation, a graduate tax or a combination of a bit of both. A graduate tax and general taxation was rejected by the coalition in favour of fees, despite the Lib Dems history of advocating the other options.

      The coalition is five-sixths Conservative. Therefore, it’s not possible for the LibDems to get LibDem policy through unless there’s substantial support for it within the Conservative Party. Why do we keep getting this idea that the Liberal Democrats are bad people because with less than 10% of the MPs they have not been able to get all their policies through?

      OK, part of the answer is the LibDem leadership making things worse by exaggerating their influence, even to the extent of claiming 75% of LibDem policies have been implemented. The discrepancy between this claim and the reality of what people see – a government which is very far from what the Liberal Democrats have always said they are about – has quite obviously hugely damaged the party. I just wish those who were responsible for this presentation line had the decency to say “Sorry, we got it wrong, that line didn’t work, we take responsibility for that and resign”.

      But, back to the issue. Since it wasn’t possible to get the LibDem ideal through, what was better? To sit on the sidelines and let the Tories get just what they wanted, or to try at least and push it a bit more towards what LibDems want? The point being made here is that the current system isn’t as far removed from a graduate tax as at first seems. The debate would be a bit morefruitful if opponents of the current system could be a bit more honest on that front. The point being made also, is that just because one is trying to argue things are not as bad as some believe does not mean one thinks they are the best they could be. Again, it would be easier for the LibDems to get this across – that what we have is the compromise that cna be got through with one sixth of the coalition’s MPs, not the LibDem ideal – if it were not for the leadership’s tactic of giving the impression of being 100% keen supporters of everything the government does.

      “young people from poor families can’t afford to go to university because of the fees”

      Yes, that is an inaccurate statement. However, it does not detract from the arguments against fees versus graduate tax and/or general taxation

      It doesn’t, but this statement has been VERY widely made, and it does seem to me those making it have actually made worse what they say they oppose by discouraging young people from applying to university because they have heard this statement and do not realise its inaccuracy.

    • “Because I work in a university and I’m not getting paid any more and the university is not showing signs of having large amounts of money coming on tap to pay for other things either.”

      That sounds rather like anecdote set against quantitative evidence.

    • “The coalition is five-sixths Conservative. Therefore, it’s not possible for the LibDems to get LibDem policy through unless there’s substantial support for it within the Conservative Party.”

      But of course it’s equally true that the Tories don’t have a majority, so it’s impossible for them to get Tory policy through unless enough Lib Dem MPs (or MPs of other parties) vote for it.

      And if Lib Dems do vote for it, they must share the responsibility. There’s no getting away from that.

    • Ed Shepherd 16th Nov '12 - 8:02am

      Lifelong education should be free to the recipient at the point of delivery. Education should be funded by a progressive taxation system. The costs of the receipient’s education should not be passed onto the recipient in the form of a debt or a liability to be paid off in the future.

    • Malcolm Todd 16th Nov '12 - 9:07am

      Ed Shepherd
      “Lifelong education should be free to the recipient at the point of delivery. Education should be funded by a progressive taxation system. The costs of the receipient’s education should not be passed onto the recipient in the form of a debt or a liability to be paid off in the future.”

      Why?

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