Opinion: No more broken promises

no student tuition feesIf you remember, this is the opening frame of the party political broadcast the Lib Dems aired just a few days before standing for election in May. You may remember it: Nick Clegg wondered around what appeared to be the set of “I am Legend” on a day when the prevailing wind was coming from the foolscap factory wearing a jacket 8 sizes too big for him. The tagline, the message, indeed the point of the advert was “no more broken promises” – the Lib Dems are different, the Lib Dems keep their promises, it’s a new kind of politics.

Here’s the Lib Dem 2010 manifesto on tuition fees: “We will scrap unfair university tuition fees for all students taking their first degree, including those studying part-time, saving them over £10,000 each. We have a financially responsible plan to phase fees out over six years, so that the change is affordable even in these difficult economic times, and without cutting university income. We will immediately scrap fees for final year students.”


To be fair the Lib Dems haven’t yet broken their promise. They just seem to be threatening it. The main reason for this is that it appears that higher education just isn’t affordable. Now some might say the Lib Dems should have thought of that before they promised it, but I’d rather concentrate on the substance of the argument. What is affordable?

Affordable is a question of political priority. Everything is affordable for a large enough sacrifice. It may mean cutting back horribly on other things but it can be done if there is the political will. When it comes to deciding how high a priority higher education spending should be then, it makes sense to me to look abroad: to look at what works and what doesn’t. After all Brazil thinks it can afford free university education for all and they have far bigger problems in other areas than we do – are their priorities skewed or are ours?
Percentage of GDP spent on tertiary education
Here are the amounts the OECD countries spend on university education and how rich they are. It looks a strong correlation to me and the maths says it is indeed a very strong correlation (consider furthermore that the left side outliers Iceland and Italy are struggling at the moment, and the right hand outliers such as Korea are still growing rapidly). Indeed an AUT study showed that not only is there an incredibly strong correlation between our wealth and the amount we spend on tertiary education but there is an even stronger correlation between competitiveness and amount we spend on tertiary education.

In short tertiary education is about the most important thing we can possibly spend our money on. Britain has the economy it has because of its tertiary education sector. There are many other countries in the world that can do things more quickly, more cheaply and more efficiently (Britain is one of the least efficient countries in Europe – we work the longest hours of any country in Europe and yet our productivity is less than 95% of the EU average) than we can. One of only things Britain has going for it is its educated workforce, without it there is nothing really to recommend it as an economy.

Moreover it is not as if there is not room for improvement. Per capita Britain is 91st in the world in terms of the amount of money spent on tertiary education – Guatemala spends more on universities than we do. Finding the money for universities is a question of priorities; and it is pathetic that we consider university funding to be a lower priority in Britain than Guatemala.

Some have suggested this extra funding should come from the students – indeed that is the justification for uncapped fees in some quarters. That logic does not stand up to close scrutiny. The market will spend the amount it has to spend on university education. If you raise fees all that will happen is that fewer people will go to university. We know this globally, that is why the studies above ignore the amount of money put into universities by students and consider solely state spend on education.

Moreover we know, it is a matter for empirical study and not a matter for debate, that high tuition fees put off poorer students from going to university – regardless of scholarship and bursary schemes. High tuition fees fees wouldn’t just hamstring Britain’s economy by starving universities of the investment they need, they also make Britain into a two tier society where the rich are more educated than the poor.
Tuition fees graph
Using the gini coefficient as a measure of income inequality and the level of tuition fees charged from this fantastic study I’ve produced this quite upsetting graph which shows just how closely the level of tuition fees a nation charges, and how unequal that nation is, are related (indeed there’s a correlation coefficient of 0.74, in statistics we’d say the odds of this relationship being down to chance are less than 0.24%).

Nations that charge high tuition fees become unequal nations; nations that don’t invest in their universities become poor nations. We may not like what we might have to do to make our universities universally affordable and the best in the world, but we have to do it. No more broken promises.

Fred Carver is a former Liberal Democrat councillor in the London Borough of Camden. He blogs on world elections and politics at Who Rules Where.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • one point though: Tertiary Education does not necessarily mean University let alone Degrees, but that’s what you’re only looking at.

  • Helen Duffett 5th Nov '10 - 3:07pm

    Now fixed.

  • Useful piece. What’s worse is that the way things are coming forward are unnecessary and appear to be driven by raw coalition politics – ie to force the Liberal Democrats to agree to high tuition fees. I am sure Vince believes he has achieved a good deal in creating a progressive graduate contribution system and in some ways he has. However it seems the revenue that will now be branded as “tution fees” is in fact capitation funding that has been withdrawn via the CSR. So an answer is to restore something like capitation funding to universities equivalent to 6k per student. Allow variable fees up to 3k with restrictive conditions to discourage them – as is proposed now for 6-9k. Then retain an equivalent level progressive graduate contribution for graduates to contribute to capitation funding as well as tuition fees. It’s more than a sleight of hand because families with poor numeracy will, as you say, be deterred by the thought of fees of 6-9k and loans built on the back of those. And it restores the principle of paying for education by capitation not fees.

  • Keith Browning 5th Nov '10 - 3:56pm

    I’m not quite sure what people expect from Nick and the rest. They didn’t win the election but instead are there moderating the Tories on everything and putting a hold on the Right Wingers. Can you imagine what the current strategies would be like without them.

    There would be an alternative way of moderating the Tories. They have four policies with no holds barred for every one of the Lib Dems.

    I am passionately against tuition fees but you cant blame Nick for them being increased. This is a five year plan and only 6 months into it. Steady as she goes. Years 2, 3 and 4 will be the most important.

  • Fred – a wee, gentle reminder that tuition fees don’t exist in Scotland, and I think are also different in NI and Wales, so your second graph should only be for England only.

  • Grammar Police 5th Nov '10 - 4:41pm

    @ Fred – we didn’t win the election, we got about 23% of the vote. However, parties that do want to increase tuition fees (Labour and Conservatives) won a huge majority of the votes. So what are we to assume?

  • David Allen 5th Nov '10 - 5:00pm

    “What is affordable?”

    Well, we’re basically talking about who pays here, not the size of the bill. The student will pay more, so that the taxpayer can pay less. If “the nation can’t afford it”, as the coalition pretends, why on earth should it help to shift the bill away from rich Dads and load it onto their poor sons and daughters?

  • It’s right to say that the issue of debt putting people off studying is a matter for investigation, but all the linked piece did was ask school leavers why they weren’t going to university. But this could be correlation rather than causation: the same kind of people who are debt-averse might be the same kind of people who woulnd’t go to University anyway.

    Studies looking at the background of students actually in University has found that the percentage of students from less advantaged backgrounds has gone up from 25% to 29% since fees were first introduced.

    In any case, the ‘Graduate Premium’- the amount that getting a degree nets you that you wouldn’t otherwise have got on average (perhaps £120,000), suggests that not going to University because of debt-fear is not a rational position to take. This is especially true under Vince’s proposed system, with its higher threshold and graduated payback.

  • David Evans 5th Nov '10 - 6:33pm

    Sadly the statement “To be fair the Lib Dems haven’t yet broken their promise. ” just like all the other clever rationalizations of the situation just won’t wash. We said to students “We promise to scrap tuition fees,” before the election. Now we are promoting the exact opposite – a massive increase. All this intellectually ingenious wordplay around the situation may salve a few people’s consciences, but they are all just games with words.

    Lots of voters support Labour and the Conservatives almost by instinct, because each portrays the other as anti or pro two or three key touchstones. Our instinctive support base is much lower, but we have been building on it steadily over probably forty or fifty years by explaining to people our position and the people who support us do so because they are prepared to listen to our arguments, and trust us to deliver. In one fell swoop we are going back on our word to a large number of young people (including those who have been at university since tuition fees, but who think “There but for the grace of God go I”). Many of these people will never trust us again, and it will cost us massively in future elections.

    Those foolish enough to think they can argue their way out of the problem will be sadly disillusioned. Those of us who remain to pick up the pieces and start building again will not easily forgive.

  • Andrew Suffield 6th Nov '10 - 12:25am

    We said to students “We promise to scrap tuition fees,” before the election.

    …by 2016.

  • @Keith Browning

    We expect Nick to keep his word. He cannot achieve the Lib Dem policy but he should be able to be trusted to vote against the increase. If you campaign under a tagline of “No more broken promises” then you need to keep your promises.

    It may be symbolic to vote against it, but the day he either abstains or (more likely) votes for the increase he becomes a liar.

  • An excellent piece, Fred.

    A related point, actually implied by the first graph, is that despite all the eye-catching world-class private Ivy League universities everyone thinks of when people mention America, the backbone of the American university system is a large world-class public university system – and one that is properly funded in a country where taxation is less than half that of the UK.

    And I couldn’t agree more that this is a debate on tertiary education, not just universities – often it’s the shorter, cheaper, more vocational courses which are every bit as relevant and as good value for money as the full degree courses.

  • Anthony Aloysius St 6th Nov '10 - 9:10am

    “We said to students “We promise to scrap tuition fees,” before the election.”

    Andrew Suffield:
    “…by 2016.”

    Ah – so trebling university fees now is just part of a cunning six-year plan to do away with them!

    Thank goodness for that. Just for a moment I thought the Lib Dem parliamentary party was a bunch of duplicitous bastards.

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