Key Lib Dem policy committee votes to keep party’s pledge to scrap student tuition fees

Antony Hook has the story over at his blog:

Last night the Federal Policy Committee voted 14 to 5 to keep our policy to scrap university tuition fees.

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44 Comments

  • Alix Mortimer 7th Jan '09 - 4:05pm

    Interesting news. Genuinely not sure where I am on this question, in spite (or because?) of the lengthy discussions on this site.

  • Liam in Preston 7th Jan '09 - 4:12pm

    It would have been suicide in the university constituencies held by the Liberal Democrats to scrap this policy.

  • Good…

    Alix, you may wish to observe my position, that abolishing tuition fees doesn’t mean just having Broon’s system minus the charges.

    Although I see the virtues of an American-style system of bursaries & scholarships, I favour a bare grant for those who are qualified (ie. fewer than are attending today, & drop this 50% idiocy) & anything else can be extra.

    It would only be a relatively small grant, enough to live on but not enough to make anyone comfortable, & students would be encouraged to compete for aid from the university, from private organisations, but not the state as the state has done enough by subsidising tuition & accomodation.

  • I’d be interested to know what arguments were deployed on both sides of the debate.

  • I thought policies were decided at conference by delegates from local parties?

  • Grammar Police 7th Jan '09 - 6:57pm

    @ Dave, they are*. But motions changing existing policies might not be brought to conference by the front bench if there’s enough pressure the other way . . .

    *Although they are conference representatives, not “delegates”.

  • cllr ray love 7th Jan '09 - 7:05pm

    the main student village for Winchester university is in my ward with a total vote of approx 1200 who vote for us on our principled position on tuition fees. it would be suicide in uni seats that we hold to support fees.

  • I disagree intensely, Jo Christie-Smith. That may be the case now, but there are more than enough bright students from poor homes who could be benefiting from a university education, whether it be in the sciences or proper humanities studies. With policies such as a pupil premium, & the LD education policy, it is reasonable to expect more.

    You are sounding like those people who say high culture shouldn’t be founded by the state as it is “elitist”, & that line eventually skirts near the patronising comments made by the revolting Blears about “the white working class”.

    I think there are too many untalented middle-class students as a result of a culture of easy access. But if academic rigour were restored, a grants system would see many able scions of the working class going to university.

    As the top graduates are turning their backs on overblown, exaggerated cash cows like the City of London & reverting to education & the real economy, now is the time to encourage people from estates like mine to take their rightful place in these enterprises of the future.

    I know for a fact that they exist.

    As for paying it, restricting access would do. It would be popular with faculty as well.

  • Richard Coe 7th Jan '09 - 7:25pm

    The Tax cut policy flies in the face of demography.

    We have a rapid change in the proportion who will be working.

    Entry level qualifications for entering employment are rising extending the time young people spend in full time education at the bottom end, whilst rising life expectancy increases the number of retired.

    There is some room for manoeuvre in raising retirement ages and reducing the quality of pensions (making pensioners poorer) but at the end of the day there will still be increased transfers from a smaller working population to a larger non-working population, many with greater needs.

    A rising level of overall taxation is surely unavoidable?

  • I do find the decision interesting, what are we going to do to prevent the universities that are reliant on the money they get from the tuition fees, which are typically those that the people from lower income backgrounds attend. I don’t agree with a fee, I agree with a graduate tax, if we want a world class education we can have it at free at the point of use, but we need a graduate tax, a minimum income guarantee, less the focus on debt.

    People should realise that students are poverty stricken because they have chosen to study rather than work, what I dont understand is how does our policy reflect the Higher Education system of this country.

    It’s entirely discriminating to the poorest people who use university as a tool for social mobility.

  • “students are poverty stricken because they have chosen to study rather than work” what a perculier thing to say, suppose all the doctors, teachers and other key workers had chosen to work where on earth would we be as a society ? Bloody dinasaurs, perhaps Tom Stubbs should be looking elsewhere with his politics.

  • I mean while they are students, and I’m not a dinosaur, google me and you’ll find out who i am

  • “I do believe that those of us who benefit most from a university education should pay for it.”

    You do. It’s called taxation

    “We should not be happy with a policy that leave low income tax payers paying for the education of largely middle class students.”

    They also pay for pensions and child benefit for the well off middle classes – as well as everything else income tax payers pay for. This is an argument for raising the threshold at which income tax is paid.

    “Free university education didn’t help increase the numbers of working classes or under privileged kids go to University and it’s not going to help now.”

    I’m fairly certain my Dad would have disagreed with this.

    “if we want a world class education we can have it at free at the point of use,”

    The University system we have is not about providing a world class education system. Maybe it should be but that is a different point.

    Was there any discussion of whether the 50% target was sensible and what can be done about drop out rates (c7% after year one so probably 10+% if you count those who drop out in year one).

  • “I do believe that those of us who benefit most from a university education should pay for it.”

    You do. It’s called taxation

    “We should not be happy with a policy that leave low income tax payers paying for the education of largely middle class students.”

    They also pay for pensions and child benefit for the well off middle classes – as well as everything else income tax payers pay for. This is an argument for raising the threshold at which income tax is paid.

    “Free university education didn’t help increase the numbers of working classes or under privileged kids go to University and it’s not going to help now.”

    I’m fairly certain my Dad would have disagreed with this.

    “if we want a world class education we can have it at free at the point of use,”

    The University system we have is not about providing a world class education system. Maybe it should be but that is a different point.

    Was there any discussion of whether the 50% target was sensible and what can be done about drop out rates (c7% after year one so probably 10+% if you count those who drop out in year one).

  • Karen Revans 7th Jan '09 - 8:28pm

    This is a policy I truly believe in and about the only thing keeping me in the Lib Dems. I wrote many letters to the paper about it! (Even got some published) I guess I am a sixth form teacher and have three children so am personally involved but it strikes me that we all pay for things for the good of others. Most graduates will put in more tax than they take and many of those who pay less tax than others will put back in other ways like tecahing. If fees became very variable an Oxford graduate like myself, from a modest background (I had a full grant) would not be able to go into teaching. In fact I probably would have been unable to go to Oxford or it been too big a risk for me if the debt was too variable.

    Young people need to start building pensions, start families, get houses. They don’t need this debt which is socially harmful for reasons given at length in letters I have written.

    By all means cut the number of places, and maybe have a national series of tests, like degree level A levels, which can be taken at local FE colleges and allow transfers to second and third years in traditional courses, but this tax on learning and intellect, giving a higher marginal rate than mega earners as it is currently. No way. A brake on economic efficiency and social mobility.

  • Chris Stanbra 7th Jan '09 - 8:45pm

    I’m glad we look as if we will be keeping this policy. Its the right policy. Graduates leave university with much greater earning power than the rest of us (I’ve got one A level). In the main, sooner or later, they exercise that power and earn above the average wage, many significantly so. They pay more tax as a result. That’s how they contribute to the cost of their university education. No need for a special tax, no need for fees.
    What will we cut to pay for this pledge? Nothing much if we put our minds to it. Government spends a colossal amount every year. Most ordinary people think that tax revenues are high enough already and do not need to be increased. There are plenty of non front line items of expenditure worthy of the chop, they’re just a little more difficult to identify. Lets not fall into the civil servant/local government officer trap and assume that cuts in expenditure must fall on front line services.
    While we’re at it let’s not fall for the other trap they lay which is to say that increased expenditure on a particular policy priority means increased taxes. It doesn’t have to. It could equally well mean less expenditure on a lower priority.
    The reason (as I understand it) that we’ve been looking at dumping this policy is the level of Student debt and the implication that if we are against fees for students and we do abolish them we are obliged to write off student debt too (not sure I agree that it necessarily follows). The argument being that the longer fees are in place the more debt has been accumulated and the greater the cost of writing it off. Yes, that’s a problem to be addressed, but it doesn’t make student tuition fees right.

  • Martin Shapland 7th Jan '09 - 9:22pm

    All those asking how we will fund it… don’t forget that it was policy before we decided to back tax cuts – it was a costed policy then, and remains a costed policy now.

    We can make £40 billion in labour’s wasteful spending on red tape without crimping on our priorities.

    Higher education should be about enabling people, not binding them into debt. Let’s make sure that young people from disadvantaged backgrounds have the ability and drive to compete for places rather than embark on a fake class war fight against the middle class’s

  • John Fraser 7th Jan '09 - 10:01pm

    Good point Martin. It is existing policy so it won’t cost us a penny to keep.

    To Geoff Paynes comment .. Geoff I know you were very much against our plans to cut public spending, but remember some of those who talked in favour of it such as Simon Hughes made clear that it was up to 20 million and in reality was likely to be far less. I was not impressed by that argument atthe time but perhaps he has in fact called it correctly.

    Will our education spokeman be now be campaigning vigerously for the abolition of student fees ????

  • David Allen 7th Jan '09 - 11:31pm

    What we need is a simple, clear line of policy which meets (and can be shown to meet) both of the two main points expressed on this thread. One, poor students must not be deterred by the threat of debt, so we must retain the pledge to scrap fees. Two, the universities must be properly funded and the graduates must pay for it, so, let’s have a graduate tax.

    Now, there are a couple of very rational pedantic objecions to this line, which have to be dealt with. The first is, “Why fuss with a graduate tax, when a progressive income tax would do just as well?” The sad answer is “In truth, a progressive income tax would be somewhat better. But we are never going to sell that idea to the public. We have to go for a graduate tax, because that is what is VISIBLY fair.”

    The second (from MatGB) is “But Labour have already, if belatedly, put in place something that is a bit like a graduate tax, now.” Well, bully for them, but let’s not let them off for soaking us with urine and then replacing it with water. Let’s insist on a further improvement, and let’s give Labour hell for causing the problems in the first place!

  • Martin Shapland 7th Jan '09 - 11:45pm

    To Jo Christie-Smith, as a recent, low paid,(I work for the party, what can I say?) graduate, I, not my fabulously middle class, less than national average wage earning, single parent, holds £15,000 of debt incurred at university from Loans and fees – that goes for all graduates who have graduated since Labour screwed us all over

    I have to say I really resent the false charge that somehow scrapping fees is a middle class tax break, this generation of students works longer than any previous to pay their way through uni, as a rule, they get less support from their parents than some argue blindly, have worse job prospects when they leave, and as for the oft quoted £400k extra in a lifetime you refer to, thats more than halved in the last ten years due to a saturation of the graduate jobs market http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/education/4599267.stm

    I was fairly lucky as a kid, I was in the last year in 1997 to be to apply for and get an assisted place to go to a Private school, the rest of the fees was paid for by my mother working her socks off taking a second or third job, my family urged me to acheive and encouraged me to have the ambition to get to uni, and I’ve come away as a graduate.

    I want to see a country where everyone can be given a similar leg up, and can be helped on their way to be all they can be. We need to invest in education from the moment people enter education, until the second they leave it. If I had turned 11 in 2007, instead of in 1997, lord knows how the story would be different with the predicted ‘market’ in higher education we are moving toward under labour

    It says something however that the conservatives helped to give me a leg up, when Labour have kept down my generation with mountains of debt they won’t clear for decades.

    To Geoff Paynes, I suggest you brush up on our policy from the horses mouth: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/programmes/newsnight/7618580.stm

  • Martin Shapland 7th Jan '09 - 11:47pm

    Geoff,

    Revising our position on student finance has been in the policy circuit since the 2005 General Election concluded, Charles Kennedy set up the commission when he was still leader, if you don’t believe me then ask Stephen Williams

  • One of the problems of current levels of univ funding is that we get what we pay for, however we pay for it. I went to univ in 1989 and have been in the sector as a student or faculty member since. In that time there have been some real technology-led quality improvements (almost all readings online, videos of lectures, etc), and some real resource-led falls in quality (bigger classes, fewer contact hours, more teaching by graduate students rather than faculty). Because LSE has lots of high fees non-EU students we have not been hit in the same way, but the tales I hear from elsewhere are pretty grim.

    Is near uniform mediocrity really desirable to liberals? Is there a danger that the best univs will opt out of the state system?

    Finally, do we have a policy on people who have recently graduated and are in debt? Do they have to pay back their debt? My understanding is that they do, but it seems a bit odd to say that debt ruins your life but those of you who have it already are stuck with it.

  • Excellent new and good to see the FPC mamke the correct decision. Hopefully now we won’t shootours elves in the foot by having this come up at Spring conference and so let the media take it as the only thing they bother to cover.

  • David Morton 8th Jan '09 - 5:52am

    Excellent News. I suspect this is just the laws of political gravity reasserting themselves. You can only ditch so much signature positioning in one parliament anyway particularly when you’ve burned tons of political capital executing two national leaders in the same period.

    While these things are always exagerated I have no doubt that ditching this policy would have been problematic with activist retenton/motivation and the new university seats. We are not a think tank, we are a political party. If we can’t make the case for publically funded investment in skills rather than extra personal debt for graduates in a recession then we may as well pack up shop.

    I’m with Geoff Payne on thw wider tax position. Superficially this policy is already costed/funded so its retention doesn’t effect the Status Quo. However we have just aquired Susan Kramers early years plans which curiously costs a very similar ammount and is in a very similar policy area.

    Only harden , bitter, wisened cynics would suggest that droping one was to pay for the other. However the early years proposals now join the list of things that need to be paid for by the £20bn planned savings before any tax cuts.

  • The last anonymous comment was from me sorry can’t get used to having to fill in the name box every time

  • Cllr David White 8th Jan '09 - 9:45pm

    I think that scrapping the commitment to scrap tuition fees is right and should be kept. This single labour policy told a generation that Blair and the rest of New lkabour didn’t care. It was OK for Jack Straw, Hain, Stephen Twigg, Harriet Harman to get a grant but now they are pulling up the rope ladder.

    We are the only Party standing up for this now and we shgould not ditch this. It would be a body blow for the Liberal Democrats.

    Dave

  • Cllr Ray Love 8th Jan '09 - 9:57pm

    David, thanks for that, as I pointed out earlier we in Winchester would be in great trouble if we did away with ou pricipled approach to tuitio fees. I have the vast majority of students in my ward. Remember our majority in Winchester in 1997 was 2 !!

  • If the policy is going to be retained, and I note there’s no record of it on the party’s website, the arguments deployed need to be a little stronger than this to avoid ridicule. I would have hoped by now one of the 9 advocates from the FPC would have come on to this thread to make that case.

    I can’t for example see a coherent rebuttal in any of the above to the points Centre Forum actually made.

    Fees are now in place, they work, they raise money for univsersities and they have not cut access, either generally or for those from less well off backgrounds. If you disagree, produce some numbers that are better than those from Centre Forum.

    Today’s student cohorts are weighted towards the children of higher income earners. That was true before fees were introduced and will be true if they are scrapped. If you scrap fees then, and fund the gap from general taxation it is entirely correct to say that it will involve ‘middle-class’ transfers.

    The issue of access depends (at these fee levels at least) almost entirely on passing exams, which in turn depends mostly on your potential, parents and effective education in early years. The Centre Forum argument then was that if any money can be found for improving university access to the disadvantaged it would be best targeted at early years through the pupil premium.

    To reinforce that case look at the numbers. 9% of the current 250,000 young people that went to university for the first time in 06/07 were from ‘low participation neighbourhoods’. That’s about 20,000 people. (HESA figures)

    Suppose you sincerely believed that number could be doubled by scrapping fees (and there it no evidence it would at increase at all, let alone double). The cost of that policy will be £2bn a year in 2010. that amounts to paying £100,000 per student gained, as the money is entirely untargeted, and most of it goes towards subsidising people who can and do pay.

    The pupil premium on the other hand is targeted directly where it matters. £2bn or even half that would arguably make it a lot more likely that 20,000 or more young people, who didn’t realise their potential, could pass the exams to go to university.

    I appreiciate all the political arguments made… we have seats that depend on students, we’re ahead in votes with students, we have more student activists who’d disappear… etc… but there are surely political benefits in whatever policy replaces this and again what are real numbers here? What is the size of the political risk? I find invoking the spectre of some kind of political holocaust in the student vote, somewhat unconvincing when neither of the other main parties is backing scrapping fees… where will these disgruntled votes actually go?

    Maybe one of the opponents to the scrapping policy could make the political case that Centre Forum avoided?

  • David Allen 9th Jan '09 - 5:02pm

    Tim Leunig,

    “Finally, do we have a policy on people who have recently graduated and are in debt? Do they have to pay back their debt? My understanding is that they do, but it seems a bit odd to say that debt ruins your life but those of you who have it already are stuck with it.”

    Well, if we had a graduate tax, we could exempt from it all those who paid fees. That’s probably as fair as practically we could be.

  • Neil,

    Thank-you for expanding your case a little. There’s certainly more breadth or argument there, I was hoping though for more depth.

    1) You cite intergenerational fairness as an issue. There are many things our parents and grandparents generation took for granted that we do not, and more so the other way around. That a tiny elite in the 1950s received a highly subsidised university education, does not create a case that it should be true for everyone for ever more. On that basis we should also be advocating subsidising mining and bringing back mortgage interest tax relief.

    The real issue of fairness is surely whether or not anyone, today, who is able to go to university, and wants to, can go, do you agree?

    2) You say individual debt is a problem. It is certainly true unsustainable bad debt wasted on bad investments or consumption can be a serious problem. Tuiton fees debts though are not the same as buying the contents of Miss Sixty on your credit card, it is an investment in your future. And a good one even if you think the £400k lifetime assumptions are wildly optimistic. They’d have to be out by a multiple of 10-15 for this to be a bad investment.

    Further as noted previously, by expressing this line, you are deliberately stoking fears of debt. Something we frequently cite as a reason why children from low-income households who could go, don’t go. The party should surely be running campaigns in poorer neighbourhoods extoling the benefits of a university education rather than making it sound scary.

    I’d see more in an argument here if it was supported by studies of real hardship as a result of fees repayment. Do you have any such studies?

    3) You say tuition fees distort choices, and in his 8th December article Paul Holmes makes similar andecdotal remarks about Australia to justify this claim. This may or may not be true so again where is the FPC’s hard analysis of this problem so we may under the size and scale of it, and any measures taken to alieviate it?

    4) I don’t understand your points (2), and (3), Centre Forum’s point was that scrapping fees will involve a regressive and uncessary transfer from the general population to those who are better off than most. Is that true or not? Or are you saying’s it’s true but doesn’t matter?

    5) I share your concern about whether or not the pupil premium will work as well as hoped, but that in itself does not make a case for spending £2bn on scrapping tuition fees. Centre Forum’s point was that scrapping fees does not improve life chances. Did the FPC reject that finding, and if so did they provide good evidence for rejecting it?

    6) You conclude that overall student debt must be a reason why access is currently skewed as it is. And in another thread you’ve said you “don’t agree that having free education does not or did not broaden higher education intake.”

    But this is the problem isn’t it Neil, your view is entirely unsupported by what has actually happened and contradicted by data in the Centre Forum paper. Where is the counter-case to justify your sincere belief?

    7) You partly answer that by saying on your own blog “For me this issue is not about the detail, but about sending a clear message that the Liberal Democrats believe that it is the role of the state to help each individual fulfil their own potential.”

    We yes… but I have to say that worries me greatly – not the principle, who disagrees with that, but surely the point of the FPC is to care quite a lot about the detail as well? Policy based on prejudices, however popular, or populist, do not stand up to much when torn apart forensically by the opposition and media.

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