Nick Clegg and Vince Cable highlight Liberal Democrat achievements in higher education

When I went to speak in the St Andrew’s University debate last week, I did a bit of what I described as getting the tin opener and the worm can perilously close to each other, but pointed out that young people from disadvantaged backgrounds were twice as likely to go to university as they were 10 years ago. I also pointed out that those graduates on the lowest incomes would be paying much less than they were under Labour.

I was greatly assisted in preparing my remarks by Stephen Tall’s piece in January on the latest data in which he said:

Here are three key points from the data:

  • Taking account of population changes, application rates for 18 year olds across the whole of the UK are at, or near, their highest levels.

  • An unprecedented 35% of 18 year olds from England have submitted a UCAS application this year.

  • Young people from the most disadvantaged areas in England are now almost twice as likely to apply as they were in 2004, significantly closing the gap with those from the most advantaged areas over the last decade.

It is important that we make sure that the actual effects of our actions in government get out there, on our terms. I’m glad that Nick Clegg  today made a major speech on the subject. Whoever put it up on the party website needs to get familiar with the indefinite article. Anyway, he said:

This may not have been the policy my party wanted, but I made absolutely sure that it wouldn’t turn a degree into a luxury for the very rich.

I made sure that no student pays a penny up front – you don’t pay anything back until you leave university, get a job and you’re earning at least £21,000.

I made sure that your repayments depend on your salary – so, if you earn less, you pay back less every month.

I made sure that, if you don’t earn enough to pay it back, eventually the money you owe is written off.

I made sure it’s actually easier than before for disadvantaged young people to get a degree by increasing the grants and support that’s available and by forcing universities to open up their doors and attract more students from lower income homes.

I understand why, when I said these things at the time, people were sceptical. That certainly wasn’t helped by some of the wild predictions being thrown around: student numbers would plummet; university places would need to be slashed; for thousands of Britain’s young people a university degree would become a thing of the past.

But not only have these predictions failed to materialise – the exact opposite has happened.

We now have the highest application rates ever.

More young men and women are going full-time to university than ever before.

A higher proportion of students from poorer backgrounds are going than ever before – 18 year olds from disadvantaged homes are actually 70% more likely to enter Higher Education than they were ten years ago.

Entry rates for students from nearly every ethnic minority are at their highest level ever.

So to all of you, to each and every one of you: if a degree is what you want, you can still have it – you’ve just got to work hard. We’ve even removed the arbitrary cap on the number of university places available so as many people who want to go, can.

Tonight, Vince Cable emailed party members to let them know about the speech. He said:

Today, Nick Clegg has laid out our record on higher education.

It’s a record that demonstrates that we are committed to helping everyone to get on in life, whether that’s through university, apprenticeships, or work. And it’s a record that shows that the difficult decisions we made back in 2010 are having a positive effect on those students we most need to encourage into university.

I know that tuition fees have been hard to discuss on the doorstep. We have expressed regret that it was not possible to deliver in office a commitment made in opposition. But we have, in government, created a fairer system in which no one pays upfront fees, and payments operates like a form of graduate tax, payable in a progressive way linked to income. So let’s make clear what our record is:

This year, we have had the highest application rates to university ever and the highest number of applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Over half a million students will be entitled to receive grants for living costs that they will never have to pay back.

Up to a quarter of the lowest paid graduates will end up paying back less than they would have under the previous system.

Nearly 200,000 students studying their first degree part time won’t have any up-front fees to pay, as they did under Labour.

Most importantly, today our most disadvantaged teenagers are 70% more likely to go to university than they were 10 years ago.

This doesn’t wipe the slate clean. But voters need to know the facts. Their children and grandchildren, no matter who they are, are more likely to attend university because of Liberal Democrats in government.

And the savings we have made have enabled us to protect adult education, and to plough more resources into apprenticeships for many of the 60% who do not go to universities.

That’s a record on higher education that I’m proud to share.

Vince Cable
Secretary of State for Business, Innovation & Skills

The memories of 3 years ago on tuition fees are painful. At the time, I was furious that we had got ourselves into the situation in the first place, but I recognised that our Vince was not the Devil. The facts now show that a university education is now more accessible to all than it was ten years ago. Not only that, but for those who don’t go to university, we’ve made sure more apprenticeships are available for young people. 1.25 million of them. Youth unemployment is still higher than it should be, but with 49,000 young people finding jobs in the last 3 months, things are definitely improving.

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • A Social Liberal 25th Feb '14 - 10:40pm

    I bet Nick doesn’t get over many students voting for him next May, no matter how he tries to spin it.

  • This from the BBC..

    “He said the Lib Dems had made a promise before the 2010 election to scrap tuition fees but had been forced to break it, because it would cost too much money and because compromises had to be made with their Conservative coalition partners.

    “I’ve said I’m sorry for that, and I meant it.”

    The problem is the promise was not as stated. That was a manifesto commitment which could not be expected to be fully met in coalition. The promise made was the NUS pledge which was to made as individuals to vote against ANY rise in fees. Either apologise for the promise that should have been kept or don’t mention it at all, but please don’t try to re write history…

  • From The Independent’s coverage.—
    ” …Lib Dem MPs admit privately that the hike in fees is still an issue raised with them on the doorsteps and at their constituency surgeries. They are worried that it will continue to haunt the party at next year’s general election, especially among young voters and in university towns and cities. ..,”

    My daughter is 21 next month and studying at university. As a 17 year old she went around her friends urging them to vote Liberal Democrat in the last General Election specifically because of the policy on student support. She is in the last year group before the Coalition changes came into being. My views are influenced by what she and her contemporaries think. My guess is that this is a political memory which will haunt the party long after most of the existing MPs have retired or lost their seats. A generation will remember Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats as the people who very clearly promised one thing and then within months did the opposite.

    Because our total family income is quite modest I have had to spend a lot of time filling in on line forms and posting off evidence to the Student Finance bureaucracy. This is like water torture but there are many poeple worse off than us. I know that compared to being on benefits and the threat of being sanctioned for not applying for a job that does not exist — being a student is quite an attractive option. But that is not the point. It is about trust. It is about making a very clear, very specific promise, gaining voters’ confidence, gaining their support, their votes and their hopes and then betraying that trust.

    Tuition fees, NHS top down reform, failure on the House of Lords, nuclear power, bombing Syria, the bedroom tax etc etc.
    Everyone has their own list of betrayals. No amount of cosy chats in highly staged TV events in East End schools is going to win that trust back. Not from the generation that had their hopes smashed.

  • A Social Liberal 25th Feb '14 - 11:07pm


    I am going to take your post in toto and post it in the members forum as it says everything I would wish to but much more eloquently. (Of course, if you disagree with me doing so then I will withdraw the post)

  • Same as me. I campaigned for the Lib Dems at the last election. Voted in the last 2 after turning 18. Not again. I was ‘lucky’ I only has 20k debt when I left. 5 years younger and it would 40k.

    It’s not just that thought. For people under, say, 40 now, the lack of housing and high house prices and rents are a massive problem. The Lib Dems have done nothing on this. Silence about record low house building, and about having the least tenants rights of any EU nation in England.

    Then there’s transport to get to work. Massively more than equivalent french, German, Italian and Spanish urban networks. The Lib Dems always used to have great polices on this. yet since the coalition silence and achieving nothing.

    Lib Dems have let younger people down massively and none of the under 30s who voted before for them will vote next time.

  • Nick Clegg and Vince Cable are absolutely the people who should be selling the scheme that they agreed upon as strongly as possible. I have been waiting for this and have wished that it had come sooner. In the medium term at least we have this scheme and we cannot afford to spend so much time wishing things had been otherwise.

    Students who are getting their first jobs will doubtless have mixed feelings. There are many on about £15 000 – 20 000 who may be beginning to realise that under the new system they would be paying less through PAYE than they are if they took out a loan under the old system.

    The dangers under this system is what future governments might do with it, though the same can also be said of taxation, however as time moves on part of the follow up needs to press ll parties to clarify their intentions with the scheme. Will it keep pace with inflation for all thresholds ? Will the £9 000 figure move with inflation too?

    This line of rational defence will meet a lot of knee jerk criticism, however this start if continued will mean that the ‘Liberal Lie’ meme will no longer pass by default, unchallenged.

  • The new scheme might be better than the old scheme and we may have this scheme due to the Liberal Democrats. If not raising tuition fees had been just a manifesto commitment then the argument that loyalists use might be convincing. I believe that all our candidates were encouraged by the national party to sign the tuition fee pledge to vote against all increases to tuition fees. Thus this became a personal promise. The tuition fee issue is not the new scheme against the old scheme it is about trust. I believe that the only answer to the trust issue was for the party to have kicked out of the party all MPs who broke their pledge to prove that we have zero tolerance to MPs who can’t be trusted. I would be interested if anyone can come up with a good alternative answer to the trust issue. In fact maybe all conference reps who voted for the coalition agreement are also to blame for the hit we took and are still taking over this. Maybe we should have included our pledge in the coalition agreement – it should have been a red line.

  • Universities are in the beginnings of a funding crisis with many considering voluntary redundancies and the closure of entire departments. Graduate pay is falling, resulting in the tuition fees system becoming wholly unsustainable. There is a crisis in HE coming.

    This will all be laid at Cable’s door.

  • Completely agree with JohnTilley & Amalric – it’s not the tuition fees that went wrong, it was the breaking of the pledge/trust/manifesto. The rights and wrongs of the scheme itself have mainly faded from the public consciousness, but few have forgotten that Nick said one thing and did another when in power – many voters will never trust him again (and I’m one of them!). This breaking of trust is what will cost us so dearly, and how we’ve wound up in this fractious state. I understand why he’s making the point, but the headlines say it all :

    …Says Man Who Also Told Students He Wouldn’t Raise Tuition Fees” – Huffpost headline 26/02/14

  • Peter Watson 26th Feb '14 - 8:03am

    Every time I see claims made about the new system (but it’s not really a new system is it, it’s just Labour’s scheme with the costs increased and the repayment threshold moved), I have to wonder about the effect of other factors on the high application figures (especially from disadvantaged backgrounds).
    Has the requirement (under Labour in 2009) from 2013 for nursing to require a university degree been a significant factor here. In terms of applications, nursing is now the most popular degree course and numbers have increased hugely over the last 4-5 years as diploma courses are phased out. Additionally, since 2010 scottish nursing applications have been handled by UCAS . In data provided by UCAS, it appears that nursing applications have been explicitly excluded from time-series analysis of application rates by age because of the effect it has on the results, but not excluded from the data about social background and other factors.
    Perhaps student nurses come from a more disadvantaged background than other groups, and differences in the fee and bursary structure for nursing might also have a significant effect because of the size of that new group. I would certainly want to be assured that the claims made by senior Lib Dems are genuinely supported by the data by comparing like with like, excluding or highlighting other factors, before I would have much confidence in the spin put on the effect (or lack of one) of increased tuition fees on application rates for different social backgrounds.

  • Can we not ditch the self-flagellation now and get out there and explain how the new system is better? And if people raise the pledge, explain that it’s the Tories’ fault?

  • For the sake of balance just like to pass on a view I have heard on a few doorsteps, including from LibDem members. Effectively: “I’m pleased we didn’t spend more public money subsidising higher education: why should my children who got a job and didn’t go to Uni be subsidising people who are going to earn more?”

  • richardheathcote 26th Feb '14 - 9:25am

    How is it the Tories fault I didn’t realise they had made a pledge?

  • Mark, the new system is not better. There is a crisis coming.

    And it’s mostly the fault of botching the new system.

  • It’s actually not much of an argument to say “Everything’s OK because university applications are now rising again.”

    Given the fact that employers are aware that nearly half the population now goes to university, there is tremendous pressure on people to get a degree if they want a job in the upper half of the market.

    What people resent is that the party has hugely increased the cost to the student of getting a degree, despite (1) a manifesto commitment to abolish fees altogether and fund higher education through general taxation and (2) signed personal pledges to vote against any increase in fees.

    The fact that Clegg is still trying to mislead people by muddling together the manifesto commitment and the personal pledge only adds insult to injury.

  • Bill le Breton 26th Feb '14 - 10:44am

    A weakness is that there is no record that we ever put forward the substance of our pledge during negotiations with the Tories. Laws is, I think, is silent on this in 22 Days in May.

    This could be remedied by the leadership publishing a record that it was put forward.

  • Chris Manners 26th Feb '14 - 12:22pm

    “Most importantly, today our most disadvantaged teenagers are 70% more likely to go to university than they were 10 years ago”

    So the education system wasn’t “failing” them, thus requiring schools for Toby Young?

    Stop digging, Vince.

  • Yes this is the most toxic legacy coalition has left us. I thought the scheme itself would be a disaster – I was wrong (although worried by the posts on this thread about problems ahead.)

    But we made a pledge without caveats, we promised a new politics without broken promises, and then went back on it. The Tories pledged not to restrict pensioner benefits, we pledged not to increase fees. They should have been linked – either both broken or neither broken. But our leadership didn’t believe in the pledge, and there’s no record we ever fought for this in the coalition agreement. And the Tories stitched us over by making Vince Cable front the bill.

    He might be so, so sorry, but we will still be paying for this politically in a generation’s time.

  • Karen – I can’t believe a Lib Dem is using that argument. It’s the same as those saying I’m not ill so why fund an NHS, I don’t have children why fund schools? An educated and highly skilled workforce is crucial and benefits more than those who went to university.

    The sad fact is that after the increase many, if not most graduates, will be paying an extra 9% of their salary in taxes for 30 years above 20k. And there’s no guarantee that threshold wont stay the same for 10 years or reduce increasing the burden on many. Plus something not mentioned very much – grants were cut substantially.

  • A Social Liberal 25th Feb ’14 – 11:07pm
    Yes I am happy for you to do that.


    This is the link to a Guardian piece by Julian Astle published in December 2008. more than a year before the general election and the formation f the coalition. Does it provide a clue as to what those at the top of he party always wanted to do? It seems unlikely to be a coincidence.

    Julian Astle is one of those people who has been in receipt of public money as a SpAd. Perhaps we should be told more about these apparently unaccountable people who have such an influence .

  • David Allen 26th Feb '14 - 6:21pm

    If Clegg is so, so, sorry, so very humble, so sincerely repentant, why does he then say:

    “This may not have been the policy my party wanted, but I made absolutely sure that … (degree not luxury for the rich). I made sure that (no student pays up front). I made sure that (repayments depend on salary). I made sure that (debt can be written off). I made sure it’s actually easier than before for disadvantaged young people to get a degree… I understand why …people were sceptical. But … We now have the highest application rates ever. (Etcetera, ad nauseam).”

    For a repentant sinner, Clegg sure does a nice line in bombast! And every time he does it, more and more people are repelled and disgusted – by a leader completely lacking in emotional intelligence.

  • Julian Tisi 26th Feb '14 - 8:07pm

    @Martin “Nick Clegg and Vince Cable are absolutely the people who should be selling the scheme that they agreed upon as strongly as possible. I have been waiting for this and have wished that it had come sooner.”
    Completely agree, though I suspect that the reason this hasn’t come sooner is that people are only now starting to understand how the new system works and how far removed the reality is from the vitriolic rhetoric we’ve had to put up with for so long. And now the evidence is mounting that far from reducing student numbers, the new system has done the opposite – and poor students especially are moving into higher education more than ever before. If you can get past the broken promise, the new system has a lot going for it – better than the old system, better than anything the Tories or hypocritical Labour would have delivered. Better even (IMO) than paying for tuition from general taxation which would have been an unfair burden on the majority who don’t go to university (but then again, having made the promise – yes, that’s what we should have done, had we been able).

    Of course for some people they’ll never be able to get past the broken promise. But there are far more out there who might be able to get past this if they understood that we’d agreed to an alternative that was fair and reasonable in the circumstances. This press release is aimed at them. But more important than the politics, there are many potential students who are being put off university by their misunderstanding of the new system – fuelled by our opponents. We owe it to them to put the facts straight.

  • “Better even (IMO) than paying for tuition from general taxation which would have been an unfair burden on the majority who don’t go to university …”

    Are you really arguing that it’s unfair for people to contribute to services that they don’t directly benefit from?

    In that case, why should people without children contribute towards schools? Or people with private health insurance contribute towards the NHS? Or rich people contribute towards benefit payments?

    Surely we need a more sophisticated concept of fairness than that!

  • Julian Tisi, so your argument to the electorate is going to be ‘we broke our pledge not to raise tuition fees, but we’re not sorry, and it’s for your own good’?

    How do you think that will go down at the doorstep?

    You’re also wrong, see my previous link. There is a hole in HE funding. A massive hole.

  • Thank you Julian Tisi for a mature response. Could all those I,m a liberal but I hate them please grow up

  • Julian TIsi, Could you clarify your point?

    Do you accept what Nick Clegg is now saying (see the 3 key points at beginning of Stephen Tall’s piece) in particular —
    ” Young people from the most disadvantaged areas in England are now almost twice as likely to apply as they were in 2004, significantly closing the gap with those from the most advantaged areas over the last decade. ”

    If you accept that then how do you explain your Conclusion —
    “more important than the politics, there are many potential students who are being put off university by their misunderstanding of the new system – fuelled by our opponents. We owe it to them to put the facts straight.”

    I tend to agree with your thought that potential students are being put off. But is Nick Clegg the best person to turn that around? Especially when you consider what Julian Astle wrote well before the coalition –

    This is the link to a Guardian piece by Julian Astle published in December 2008.

    It is fair, is it not, to assume that Nick Clegg agrees with Julian Astle considering the post he appointed him to?

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