Opinion: Exploding the tuition fees polling myth

It is generally assumed knowledge – within the Liberal Democrats as well as in the wider political world – that our party’s poll numbers took a big nosedive right after the coalition government voted (excepting rebels) to change the way tuition works in England by raising the limit on what universities can charge students per year to £9,000.

For instance, a common answer I get when I ask fellow Lib Dems how many points they think we lost post tuition fees is “about 8%”.

What I want to do here is not to discuss the pros and cons of the 2010 Higher Education Act, but simply to lay to rest this lazy assumption and to reassert objective reality. Because the fact is that our poll numbers had fallen to the 10/11% level we’re used to now weeks before the Browne report had even landed, never mind the arrival of the protests and the unfortunate Millbank Tower incident.

For the purposes of making this simple, I’ll stick to YouGov polls as they have been the most consistent as well as being done semi-daily.

The Browne Report which formed the basis for most of the more controversial elements of the eventual Bill was published on October 12th, 2010. Some polling from around that day: October 1st, we polled 11%. October 5th, 11%. On the 12th itself: 11%.

But the tuition fees didn’t become a national story until after the protests of November 10th. Our poll rating that day? 11%. Give the whole thing a week to set in. Our poll rating on the 18th? 11%. Obviously there were variations day to day, but not much.

Going back further in time, the end of August is where our poll numbers really started to tumble. August 31st saw our lowest yet poll rating with YouGov since the general election (and our first of many 11% ratings); we got a slight bump from Autumn 2010 conference, seeing a few 13 and 14% ratings, but after that we were back to 10-11-12% being the norm, a situation that has persisted to this day (with admittedly, 8-9-10% now being a more realistic assessment of what we get most days, but this is a minor variation).

 

Why is any of this relevant? I think it’s important when looking towards 2015 to realistically assess the whys and whens of our polling numbers.

And the truth is, by the time tuition fees came round we had already lost the support of many of the groups of people who had voted Lib Dem in 2010, most notably students and left leaning people under 25. In other words, those who had started answering “Labour” when asked who they would vote for at the next general election who had voted for us last time round had already left anyway, tuition fees or not, simply because we joined a coalition with the Tories. It just took a little time for that to take effect.

 

* Nick Tyrone is a liberal writer. He blogs at nicktyrone.com and is an associate director at CentreForum.

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35 Comments

  • Aye, but you’ll not recover because of the tuition fees disaster. For a start, HE is now unsustainable because the sums don’t add up and people seem to be put off university by the cost, so the fees policy will be ditched by the next government.

    It will be used as a byword for liberal democrat treachery and incompetence, fairly or not, for at least a decade. And it must be doubtful if the lib dems will exist as a party at the end of that time frame. You’re almost dead in Scotland, just a matter of time before you’re just as dead in the north of england and the poorer parts of the south west.

    It’s a shame. You could have been contenders.

  • This article relies on a dodgy premise. It was clear months before the vote that the party was going to break the pledge on tuition fees. In fact is was clear as soon as Lib Dem MP’s endorsed the coalition agreement. There was plenty of coverage about this in the media. The fact that the precipitous drop in support happened before the actual vote proves nothing.

  • It takes all of 5 second research and the power of google to confirm that AndrewR is right:

    http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?storycode=411600

    Before the final tuition fees debate there was movement in the polls. 19 months after the debate ended and the lib Dems still have the same share of voting intention. Tuition fees polarised opinion between party diehards (and those sympathetic to the right-wing cabal in charge) and those that have decided that nothing is going to persuade them to vote Lib Dem again at the next election. This situation is unlikely to change without regime change.

  • Geoffrey Payne 10th Jul '12 - 1:14pm

    I am not persuaded. There was a lot of speculation before the bill was passed that this was going to happen so the Lib Dems lost support whilst that was going on.
    People are asking themselves; how does democracy work when I vote for a political party that says it is going to abolish student tuition fees, but when they are voted into office they triple them? If I vote Lib Dem in the future, how do I know what they are going to do with that vote? This is a problem that Nick Clegg will have to sort out, I do not know how.

  • Many Lib Dem voters were repulsed by the idea of coalition with the Tories; this is probably what caused the initial slump. Anything further, including tuition fees, compounds the problem. What is more is that these numbers don’t say anything about support by age group: has the slump been particularly pronounced among people under the age of 25? In which case, the requirements of coalition may have devoured part of our future.

  • It’s certainly true that joining with the Tories has cost the Lib Dems support (although personally I find it utterly ridiculous to support PR but oppose the notion of forming a coalition with one of the major parties out there) but thinking that this alone has cost the LDs their support is wide of the mark. Other commenters have already ripped apart the obvious flaws in your numeric analysis, so I’ll not retread your error, but I will say this: the negotiation of the coalition agreement was a disaster.

    The Liberals are rightly proud of the democratic way in which policy is decided, yet on this key occasion the policy in coalition was not determined by the party at large nor did it really respect the opinions of the party at large. Instead, Clegg’s cabal backed those parts they liked while willing abandoning parts that were of key importance to many of the party’s voters. The collapse in Liberal vote can essentially be traced to this flawed process.

    Going on to back policies that were in no parties manifesto and widely reviled both by the Liberals core voters and many of the left wing voters who will swing between the Liberals and Labour – and, yes, I’m talking NHS here – has simply compounded the problem and hardened the views of those who no longer support the party.

  • Paul in Twickenham 10th Jul '12 - 1:32pm

    Does it make any difference that the party’s poll numbers were already on the slide before the fees protests? I don’t think so. Poll numbers always go up and down.

    The student fees issue has had – to coin a term that is in vogue in The City – a secular rather than a cyclical impact.

    The tuition fees debacle – for let’s be honest, that’s what it was – has resulted in a generation that will now instinctively recoil from voting Lib Dem ever again.

  • Nick Tyrone 10th Jul '12 - 2:58pm

    I think the idea that people just decided on masse that the Lib Dems were going to do something on tuition fees that roughly half of the amphophous group of people who voted Lib Dem in 2010 wouldn’t like is the dodgy one. Before the Browne Report was published there was no way to really guess what might happen and any psephologist can tell you that people don’t tend to spend loads of time esoterically guessing what a party may or may not do. They react to circumstance.

    And I’m not arguing that tuition fees might not have had long lasting affects on our voting share or that it might not have been the final nail in the coffin for those who had already decided to turn away from the Lib Dems. All I’m saying is that the drop in the polls happened months before the tutition fees issue was really on all but a small minority’s radar.

  • Paul in Twickenham 10th Jul '12 - 3:11pm

    @Nick. I agree – correlation is not causation.

    The fact that our poll numbers were falling before the student fees issue really took centre stage might reasonably indicate that it was not the cause of that decline. However the fact the the numbers have flatlined subsequently might well be part of a secular trend that is due to a loss of trust was caused by student fees and other perceived u-turns.

    Presumably there is some analysis on the reasons why people who supported the party at the GE say they no longer support us, although I’ve not seen it.

  • Charles Beaumont 10th Jul '12 - 3:13pm

    @Christian De Feo: “Many Lib Dem voters were repulsed by the idea of coalition with the Tories”. I think this is a key point. Obviously it’s true that the lead-up to the tuition fees decision played a role. But I think there’s an underlying point – there are two big tribes in British politics, both negatively defined: one that regards Tories as basically evil and another that regards the Labour party as basically dangerous. The first tribe was willing to vote LibDem until the day we entered the coalition. I’m struck by the number of people, with comfortable middle class lifestyles who regard the Tories as totally beyond the pale and therefore letting them into government via a coalition as an act of betrayal. Basically the Polly Toynbee mentality. The fact that Labour wouldn’t have been able to form a government and the fact that nobody anywhere wanted Brown as PM was conveniently ignored.

  • Peter Watson 10th Jul '12 - 3:31pm

    @Nick Tyrone
    You only have to follow Steve’s link to see that on 12 May 2010, “Student” posted the message on the THES site, “I voted Lib Dem because of their policy on fees. I am an idiot.”, and the subsequent postings for or against, to realise that the Lib Dem position on tuition fees was already looking like a u-turn.
    Or the BBC website (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/programmes/the_daily_politics/8708857.stm), where on 27 May 2010 Sir Menzies Campbell was already threatening to rebel against the LD line of abstention on tuition fees rather than break his pledge .
    The lib dem “betrayal” of student voters was being widely reported and debated then, within days of the coalition forming. It coincided with the early drop in lib dem support. It may not have caused LD support to plummet, but it is ridiculous for the article on this page to claim that the two are not linked simply by ignoring all events before the culmination of this sorry state of affairs in October 2010.
    But if I am to take your claim at face value, and tuition fees did not contribute to falling LD support, and at that early stage it was not the NHS, omnishambles, etc., then why do you think LD support fell so far, why has it fallen further and not recovered, and why do our MPs think they have any mandate for what they are doing if voters are abandoning us for reasons other than tuition fees?

  • david thorpe 10th Jul '12 - 4:17pm

    Ive knocked on doors all over the country since the tuition fees vote, mostl;y the people who dont like us dont mention that if they previously did like us….the vast majority of people who live in poor areas mention otjer policy issues..,.the exception being people who have never siupported us…in places like tower hamlets Im afriad tuition fees and universuity are a world away from the reality iof their dauily licves…if we wantt o help the poorest focus on things which matter to the poor….my evisdence is onyl emptical but Ive met very few lib dem voters who on mentioning that thet are swtiiching to labour say tuition fees as the first reason..many people we always had a s labour voters use it as a stick with which to beat us..but they werent our voters anyway so are irrlevant

  • It’s not the coalition that’s caused the slide, it is tuition fees. You can argue that this or that % walked away but it was who, not how many, that walked that was the problem – this party had heavy support on campus and amongst young people. And please, stop putting the word betrayal in inverted commas, as if that makes it something other than what itwas – a betrayal, for sure,mand an unnecessary one too. The LDs had an opt out on fees votes in the coalition agreement.

    Time to re-build, I fear. The party will soon learn who its real friends are!

  • It’s all a bit academic as to when the polls dived for the LibDems. The important question is will poll ratings stay where there are or will they recover; and if they are to recover how? and when? At this moment in time ‘g’ seems to sum up the situation. In any case, in my honest opinion, Fees as an electoral issue will pale to nothing when compared with the letters NHS. That’s the biggy.

  • Andrew Suffield 11th Jul '12 - 8:49am

    In any case, in my honest opinion, Fees as an electoral issue will pale to nothing when compared with the letters NHS

    Not likely – the reporting of tuition fees at least bore some resemblence to reality, while the NHS hysteria was largely about proposals that were never made, much less enacted.

    When years pass and the NHS still hasn’t been sold off or shut down (because the Act prohibits those things rather than permitting them) then people will realise they were lied to by Labour, again.

    And please, stop putting the word betrayal in inverted commas, as if that makes it something other than what itwas – a betrayal, for sure,mand an unnecessary one too. The LDs had an opt out on fees votes in the coalition agreement.

    Using it would have given us unlimited fees that excluded less wealthy students. That would have been a betrayal.

    Remember that both Labour and the Tories are fully committed to tuition fees being at least £6k. When both of them want it to happen, stopping it was simply not an option.

  • Andrew Suffield, the Labour and Tory position on tuition fees is irrelevant. The Liberal Democrats pledged to vote against them. They did not. You attracted a large number of students and other voters on this policy. You lied to them. Betrayed them. And now you try and blame somebody else.

    If you want to survive the next election you will have to grow up and take responsibility.

  • Secular usually means “Belonging to the world and its affairs as distinguished from the church and religion; civil, lay, temporal. Chiefly used as a negative term, with the meaning non-ecclesiastical, non-religious, or non-sacred. [OED]” If we’re going to change it’s meaning or emphasis, perhaps people would be so kind as to offer some clues?

  • Terence Evans 11th Jul '12 - 12:59pm

    @g

    Quite correct. Regardless of whether the drop in opinion polls following the decision, this debacle will be bought up time and time again at the next election. Especially given a lot of first time voters will be people taking on this debt. Those first time voters also have parents and grandparents. We also hold a grudge.

    the party faithful can continue defending the indefensible – it merely reinforces the deeply held feeling that your party is not to be trusted. Not “feeling”, it doesn’t necessarily arise from rational thought – but you are going to have to do a lot better than referring to the Browne report and saying what the other parties would have done.

  • Peter Watson 11th Jul '12 - 1:21pm

    @Andrew Suffield
    We had (have?) a policy to remove tuition fees. In coalition we traded it off against other policies. That’s compromise, that’s politics, that’s coalition. Fair enough.
    But our MPs made individual pledges to vote against increasing tuition fees. They gained support based upon this. They then did the opposite. That is a betrayal. It matters not whether they were stupid or dishonest when they made their pledges, neither of these are virtues for a politician.

  • Peter Watson 11th Jul '12 - 1:35pm

    @Peter Chivall
    After two years we should not need to respond to Labour attacks by pointing out what they did a decade ago. They lost the election in 2010, and we should be able to point to our record in government to show that we are better, that we have brought “a new kind of politics”.
    Instead, we have to justify voting for increased tuition fees despite promising to vote against them, defending the tax bombshell we warned against, promoting free schools that we said would be a disaster for standards, and imposing a top-down reorganisation of the NHS.
    Pointing out to our critics that we are just as useless, weak and duplicitous as the big parties does not seem like the way to claw back voter support.

  • @Peter Watson
    “defending the tax bombshell we warned against”
    Didn’t that blow up in your face even before the election though? I seem to recall that VC was quizzed about it and admitted that you couldn’t rule it out anyway. Didn’t he also admit (also on the BBC I think) that it (the poster) was just political point scoring when quizzed about the actual VAT rise?

    Another self inflicted injury I think, perhaps caused by a lack of thought on what might happen if you actually ended up in government.

  • Andrew Suffield 12th Jul '12 - 8:59am

    But our MPs made individual pledges to vote against increasing tuition fees. They gained support based upon this. They then did the opposite. That is a betrayal. It matters not whether they were stupid or dishonest when they made their pledges, neither of these are virtues for a politician.

    But that’s only half the story. If they had voted the other way, then tuition fees would also have gone up, which would have been the opposite of what they promised, and a “betrayal”.

    So how were they supposed to vote?

  • Andrew Suffield 12th Jul '12 - 9:02am

    I suspect it is in the air war where it will be played out at high volume in the lead up to 2015, drowning out everything else we say.

    Anybody who tries to play that line will get laughed down, because they personally did far worse things on the same issue. Besides, everybody outside the political bubble is bored of tuition fees already. I expect it will be a non-event by 2015.

    You remember how the 2010 election was all about the Iraq war? No? That’s because elections aren’t about things which happened more than a year ago.

  • Peter Watson 12th Jul '12 - 10:13am

    @Andrew Suffield
    “If they had voted the other way, then tuition fees would also have gone up”
    Why? And even if fees did go up, then we’d be in the same situation but the Lib Dems would look virtuous not treacherous. I don’t have a problem with trading manifesto policies; that’s politics. It’s the way that personal pledges were made so publicly and then dishonourably ignored that has damaged the reputation of our politicians and our party.

    “Besides, everybody outside the political bubble is bored of tuition fees already.”
    Students aren’t. The parents of students aren’t. Those studying with the Open University aren’t. Furthermore, it feeds into an ongoing narrative of a party that cannot be trusted. Mud sticks and everything our MPs do is viewed through brown-coloured spectacles. I don’t think we lost the AV referendum because voters love first-past-the-post: we lost it because our opponents used tuition fees as a weapon against us and said AV would lead to more Nick Cleggs in government. Already commentators expect Lib Dem MPs to back-down over House of Lords reform.

  • – Andrew Suffield

    “But that’s only half the story. If they had voted the other way, then tuition fees would also have gone up, which would have been the opposite of what they promised, and a “betrayal”.

    I suppose Labour and Tories might have done some sort of deal but it’s rather doubtful. If they had the result would have been a lower cap than 9K. In any case what the party promised was to vote against increasing fees. If they had done that nobody would have accused them of betrayal whatever the end result and it’s just silly to pretend otherwise.

    “So how were they supposed to vote?”
    Er, the way they promised they were going to vote?

    “Anybody who tries to play that line will get laughed down, because they personally did far worse things on the same issue.”

    Eh?
    Well the Tories did vote against increase tuition fees in opposition and then triple them when they got into power but they didn’t break a manifesto commitment or pledge. It’s often said that Labour broke a manifesto commitment in 1997 when they introduced fees however this is simply false. In fact all the manifesto did say on HE funding is that in future graduates would have to make a contribution. They promised in 2001 not to introduce top-up fees and they certainly broke that commitment, voting in 2004 to set a cap of £3k. Clearly that is wrong but it is not “far worse” than breaking a manifesto commitment and a pledge within months of coming to office.

    “Besides, everybody outside the political bubble is bored of tuition fees already. I expect it will be a non-event by 2015.”

    Do you think it is going to be a non-event to all the people that will have to pay these fees? The peculiar stupidity of the volte-face on fees is that it is an issue that is guaranteed to run and run.

    I’m afraid a head-in-the-sand attitude about the damage the whole tuition fees debacle has done is what is going to turn a bad result in 2015 into a rout. The only hope is to pin the blame on the leadership and defenestrate them before 2015.

  • ……………………“Besides, everybody outside the political bubble is bored of tuition fees already. I expect it will be a non-event by 2015.”………………

    I’ll bet it won’t. The fateful photo of Clegg will form the background to a list of LibDem ‘betrayals'(NHS, Disability, Welfare,etc.). They say a photo is worth a thousand words and it will feature in every other party’s publicity no matter what the subject.

  • Andrew Suffield 13th Jul '12 - 7:40pm

    Do you think it is going to be a non-event to all the people that will have to pay these fees?

    Yes, because all those people will find they aren’t actually paying those fees, and will realise that they were lied to by Labour.

    I’m afraid a head-in-the-sand attitude about the damage the whole tuition fees debacle has done is what is going to turn a bad result in 2015 into a rout.

    And here we see Labour’ s grand strategy for 2015: keep talking about an LD “rout” and hope it catches on.

    I suppose Labour and Tories might have done some sort of deal but it’s rather doubtful. If they had the result would have been a lower cap than 9K.

    Don’t be ridiculous. Obviously any deal between “The party that wants no fees” and “The party that wants unlimited fees” is going to be for a lower amount than any deal between “The party that wants £6k fees” and “The party that wants unlimited fees”.

  • Peter Watson 13th Jul '12 - 8:15pm

    @Andrew Suffield
    “Yes, because all those people will find they aren’t actually paying those fees, and will realise that they were lied to by Labour.”
    Of course those fees are being paid; money goes into university bank accounts and later comes out of students’. I have no idea what you are trying to say here. Perhaps you mean that upon graduating with an enormous loan that they will not have to repay if they leave the country then we will see an exodus of our most talented engineers, scientists and medics.

    As a result of the coalition policy Open University fees have gone up by a factor of 5 in many cases, and many students are not eligible for loans. There are many mature students looking to change career, develop their skills, or take an opportunity they could not at 18: they will be paying those fees, assuming the OU survives this measure.

    Besides all this, it is still Lib Dem policy to remove tuition fees, so we are approaching the next election campaign explaining why a measure that we didn’t want but voted for is really good but we still don’t want it. Is that what we meant by a new kind of politics.

    The fact that people – including yourself – are still talking about a Lib Dem betrayal over tuition fees 2 years on and Labour’s u-turn on the same issue several years earliercontradicts your assertion that it will become a non-event anytime soon. But even if people do forget the specifics of tuition fees, the damage to our party’s reputation will take longer to recover.

  • “I have no idea what you are trying to say here.”

    Apparently he’s trying to say that because people will be repaying these loans over several decades it’s equivalent to not repaying them at all.

    I can’t imagine many people will be convinced by that.

  • Peter Watson 13th Jul '12 - 9:50pm

    @Chris
    If only we could wish away the national debt in the same way 😉

  • daft ha'p'orth 14th Jul '12 - 1:58pm

    @Andrew Suffield

    Again this ‘no-one really pays this, it isn’t real money’ stuff.

    I’ve had enough of hearing this, I really have. As @Peter Watson states, a significant proportion of students are faced with paying these ridiculously high fees up front, because they are not eligible for loans. I happen to be one of them as an OU student, and I know many people in a similar situation, many of whom were trying to retrain. The Lib Dems, Labour and Conservatives combined have done a pretty good job of portraying access to HE as a simple matter of generously subsidising seventeen-year-olds in their quest for a three-year party in any convenient ivory tower, but that’s a far cry from reality. I’d have some residual respect for the Lib Dems if there was any visible indication that the party understood this, recognised the significance of a £5k-£9k/year upfront barrier, accepted that the policy does not address these situations effectively, or demonstrated any intention of doing anything about it other than occasionally bleating about the selfishness of would-be second-chance students or those looking to retrain.

    This has come up so very many times on Lib Dem Voice already that there is no excuse for anyone who reads this site regularly to claim that ‘all these people […] aren’t actually paying fees’. For one thing, those in Higher Education will mostly have come across cases of people who absolutely are faced with paying these fees up-front or dropping out. And even for those who are eligible for loans, it’s ‘buy now, pay later’. Very few people are likely to adopt the desired mental state of ‘buy now, and spend the next thirty years blissfully ignoring the large wodges of cash deducted from your income’. Instead, I sincerely hope that they will recognise and resent it every time they look at their bank accounts.

    I am angry with my Lib Dem MP for breaking his pledge, and yes, I lost a lot of respect for him — but to be honest, I could’ve accepted that and maybe even the 9k fees as an interim measure, if only I saw any move to recognise and address the effect of the policy on the prospects of students outside the targeted demographic. As with other Coalition policies, there seems to be little interest in taking that responsibility. I can’t respect that at all.

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