The coalition agreement: transport & universities and further education

Welcome to the twentieth and last (phew!) in a series of posts going through the full coalition agreement section by section. You can read the full coalition document here.

Traditionally the transport sections of party manifestos contain commitments to various expensive, long-term public expenditure projects. In the current financial climate it is no surprise that the coalition agreement’s transport section is rather heavy on matters of regulation and bureaucracy and rather light on directly spending money to improve transport.

So we have a promise to “make Network Rail more accountable to its customers”, a commitment to “fair pricing for rail travel”, a move towards “longer rail-franchises in order to give operators the incentive to invest”, a reform of the way “decisions are made on which transport projects to prioritise, so that the benefits of low carbon proposals (including light rail schemes) are fully recognised” and a promise that “we will turn the rail regulator into a powerful passenger champion”.

When it comes to specific projects, the list is rather short even if it starts with a bang: “we will establish a high speed rail network”, “we will support Crossrail and further electrification”,  “we will mandate a national recharging network for electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles”, “we will support sustainable transport initiatives” and “we will work towards the introduction of a new system of HGV road user charging”.

To round it off there are two commitments covering traditional moans from motoring columnists: “we will stop central government funding for new fixed speed cameras and switch to more effective ways of making our roads safer” and “we will tackle rogue private sector wheel clampers”.

The university and further education section has one of the agreement’s ticking political time bombs: student tuition fees. Party conference and the Federal Policy Committee have made very clear their strong support for scrapping them. The agreement only goes as far as to say “We will await Lord Browne’s final report into higher education funding, and will judge its proposals … If the response of the Government to Lord Browne’s report is one that the Liberal Democrats cannot accept, then arrangements will be made to enable Liberal Democrat MPs to abstain in any vote”.

It’s an issue that has already made Ming Campbell talk about rebelling in Parliamentary votes. The situation, however, is still very much up for grabs, with not only Lord Browne’s recommendations yet to appear (and no-one knows what they will be as yet) but also plenty of scope for the Government to then decide which recommendations to accept and in what form. It is far from a done deal that the outcome will be an unpalatable recommendation, Lib Dems abstaining and the measure going through.

Elsewhere in the section we get support for “the creation of apprenticeships, internships, work pairings, and college and workplace training places”, a commitment to “set colleges free from direct state control and abolish many of the further education quangoes”, a promise to “review the support for part-time students in terms of loans and fees”, a pledge to publish more information about student courses – including satisfaction scores and subsequent graduate earnings data, and also movement on the controversial research funding arrangements: “we will ensure that public funding mechanisms for university research safeguard its academic integrity”.

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  • “We will establish a high speed rail network” means … er … what exactly?

  • I very much hope we will channel whatever money there is for rail into smaller, more cost effective schemes than the ultra-irrelevant ‘high-speed’- scheme which will shave, ooohhh, several minutes off already perfectly adequate journey times to Birmingham and Manchester at vast cost which the inevitable gold-plated premium fares will fail to recoup. And I would take a long, hard look at the cost-benefit of cancelling Crossrail, too. The cost of these vanity projects doesn’t stack up against the benefits of 1000 local, but sadly less ‘glamorous’ schemes.

  • Cllr Jeff Evans 7th Jun '10 - 12:40pm

    Whatever happens, the Government must get a handle on the cost of new transport schemes. I find it incredible the cost of a basic new railway station with a glorified bus shelter costs around £5m these days with a lead in time of up to ten years of planning.

  • Andrew Cook 7th Jun '10 - 10:40pm

    We should be pressing for Thameslink, Crossrail and the High Speed Rail network to be completed as soon as possible. Since it takes so long to build these projects, you need to imagine what Britain will be like in 15-20 years hence and what the demands and stresses on the transport system incluing roads will be then. The High Speed Network isn’t just about taking time off journeys to Birmingham and Manchester, although there are economic benefits in doing so. It’s also about creating extra space on other North-South routes and about environmental benefits by removing some short haul aircraft journeys and getting more people to travel by rail rather than car.

  • Matthew Huntbach 8th Jun '10 - 9:36am

    What it says about universities is very thin, and does not address what I believe to be the main problem with our universities at the moment: that all the incentives on them are to reduce teaching quality. Underneath, that is also what the tuition fees issue is about – anyone who believes the top universities are crying out to be able to charge higher fees in order to improve teaching doesn’t know what the university world is like. The top universities in particular see teaching undergraduates as a minor inconvenience they have to do in order to make money to get on with what they see as their real work – churning out research papers.

    Still, at least in David Willetts we have a minister for universities who understands these issues. That is a great advance, regardless of his politics, on the previous minister for universities who quite clearly did not.

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