The Independent View: Clegg must play his cards right on student fees

Well here we are, in the cockpit of history. The Today programme yesterday reported that David Willetts had been yanked back from the Conservative Party conference to negotiate with Vince Cable over student fees, looking for a deal before the Browne Review delivers its report.

What kind of deal is possible? This is a crucial question not just for Liberal Democrats but for the whole country because Nick Clegg holds a powerful hand and the way he plays his cards may shape the future our universities and the role they play in this country for a generation.

The right of abstention on fees granted to the Lib Dems in the Coalition Agreement involved compromise on both sides and is completely understandable. But it put off the substantive decisions about what to do on an issue that is loaded with electoral dynamite. Now that those decisions are coming to a head, none of the options look easy.

If Clegg chooses to lead the party in abstaining, then the Conservatives’ effective majority drops to just 24. Now consider the large number of Lib Dem MPs who could choose to join Menzies Campbell to break the whip and vote against a rise in fees. Throw them in and the notional majority could melt away.

It’s enough to genuinely stop Tory whips sleeping at night. The tiniest of rebellions by his backbenchers could mean defeat for David Cameron. And not just any defeat. Defeat on a big issue, a £4 billion a year issue that would require emergency legislation to rewrite the outcome of the CSR and save the universities from bankruptcy, breaking Osborne’s deficit reduction pledges along the way. In other words, humiliation. This is Clegg’s ace, the reason why Cameron needs him on side.

But is it really possible that Clegg will lead his troops past the Aye tellers? The party has voted again and again against rises in fees, and did so again last month. At that conference, Clegg said, “The only question is over when we can afford to scrap tuition fees.” And then, of course, there’s the pledges. Fully 54 of the 57 Lib Dem MPs have signed the NUS pledge to vote against any rise in fees.

Whatever his reasoning, should Clegg now back a rise in fees it’s inevitable that he will face accusations of betrayal and broken promises. The NUS is already directing students with bitter irony to Clegg’s “Broken Promises” film from the general election.

For Clegg this could be the equivalent of George Bush’s famous decision to repudiate his promise, “Read my lips – no new taxes.” It could be the betrayal voters remember, the betrayal from which he never recovers. And lets remember, the £30,000 parents could end up spending on their children’s university education will make the loss of child benefit look like a dropped 20p.

I think Lib Dems should forget about a graduate tax as the solution. Even Vince Cable has abandoned that in favour of a “variable graduate contribution”. Yes, there are other ways of organising student finance other than fees but in the end not only do most of them not make sense, simply renaming the problem doesn’t make it go away. It just makes the renamer look shifty.

One way out is for Clegg to cut a deal with the NUS in which it releases the MPs from their pledges in return for a sufficiently progressive and inexpensive (for students) settlement. But the NUS is currently frozen out of negotiations and starting to turn its fire on Clegg. Aaron Porter, the NUS president, has been tweeting this week: “if Nick Clegg had any principles he wouldn’t need any pressure to stick to his pledge. He’d just do it!”, “read the lead story on the Observer today & then you’ll know why I’m so angry with the Lib Dems”, “we’ve been told they are planning to support £7k. So it’s time for Lib Dem members & NUS to put pressure on”, “Time to enforce the pledge!”

In any case, anything acceptable to the NUS is by definition unacceptable to the Treasury, which is determined to shift the burden on to students, and to Conservative free market-oriented thinkers.
So whichever way Clegg and Cameron turn, there are big risks. Browne has long been due to deliver his report on Monday. If he can’t make that deadline, we’ll know that Willetts’ diplomacy has failed, the deal hasn’t been done and the crisis is upon us.

William Cullerne Bown founded Research Fortnight.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Colin Green 7th Oct '10 - 2:13pm

    I think enough time has passed that we can now vote against the Tories without it looking like the end of the coalition. This is a matter of principle on which we must be seen to stand up. The Financial crisis is bad but not unsolvably bad. If we pledged not to raise student fees, we should not raise student fees, and not just because of our credibility. Clegg should stand firm on this one, or at the very least he should order an abstention and then ALL our MPs disobey.

  • We all know full well that tuition fees are here and big rises are inevitable. And we all know full well that Clegg will not oppose it. To him, abstention is a principled position.

  • LibDemKitty 7th Oct '10 - 2:30pm

    Interesting points, but as Willetts himself pointed out, student loans are heavily subsidised and raising fees as and of itself would actually raise the costs to the government. Not sure how the budget plans of selling off the student loan book would affect this though.

  • blanco libre 7th Oct '10 - 2:32pm

    It’s difficult. You say Clegg is Cameron’s ace, but Clegg is stuck between a rock and a very hard place. Even if he abstains, the vote might pass and he’ll be labelled a traitor/sellout.

  • You assume Labour won’t vote for increases. Seeing as their first offer for coalition was an increase to £7,000…

    And Jayu, you use the word know incorrectly, and immaturely, once again.

  • LibDemKitty 7th Oct '10 - 2:35pm

    Also let’s not forget that Cameron wrote a Tory manifesto a few years ago which contained a pledge not to introduce student fees, so let’s not pretend like the Tories are hell-bent on upping student fees and shafting students, shall we?

  • A graduate tax is the only thing short of scrapping fees that I would find remotely acceptable. Then at least people that benefit by going on to have higher paying careers after graduation will pay the most and those that have lower paying careers will pay less.

  • Colin Green 7th Oct '10 - 3:49pm


    “A graduate tax is the only thing short of scrapping fees that I would find remotely acceptable. Then at least people that benefit by going on to have higher paying careers after graduation will pay the most and those that have lower paying careers will pay less.”

    Many graduates don’t have super high salaries. Teachers and some Nurses for instance. Not everyone who goes to university is a Surgeon or Barrister. A graduate tax, with a high threshold may be acceptable. The problem is that some will end up paying way more over a lifetime’s work than the original cost of the fees.

  • Am I the only one to think that the fairest way out of this is not to penalise people for wanting to get an education, or to penalise graduates over non-graduates earning the same amount via a graduate tax, but to increase taxes across the board for middle to high earners?

  • Well if they do raise fees… after the Lib Dems courted the student vote during the election based on scrapping fees, then I hope there will be another 68′, could be a lot of fun.

  • @WIlliam

    See my comment to Andrew above. Why would the Conservatives trash their own reputation for low income tax to get the Lib Dems off the hook?

    Because they may not have a choice. If more than 20 lib dems oppose then the bill won’t pass. It might help the Conservatives to let the Lib Dems win on this issue+ the middle class conserative base would not want a rise either. It could in fact help Cameron’s image.

    Also, Cameron never said he wanted to raise fees, so there is no obligation in principle for him to do so.

    I don’t think Cameron need worry about it being ‘Clegg’s victory’, in fact it might increase the stability and popularity of the coalition as a whole…. letting Clegg have this one.

  • Simon Drage 7th Oct '10 - 4:25pm

    Why should we give up on a graduate tax? I was impressed with the work presented by million+ at our conference in Liverpool.

  • Colin Green 7th Oct '10 - 4:30pm

    “Am I the only one to think that the fairest way out of this is not to penalise people for wanting to get an education, or to penalise graduates over non-graduates earning the same amount via a graduate tax, but to increase taxes across the board for middle to high earners?”

    No. I agree with you.

  • If I were to think outside the coalition for a moment – I personally oppose a Graduate Tax. I think all education should be free, and I pretty firmly believe that the benefits granted by any form of higher education / experience are un-hypothecateable.

  • Patrick Smith 7th Oct '10 - 5:04pm

    It is sensible to first take stock of the recommendations in the Browne Report and then see if he is going to say that a `variable graduate contribution’ is the best way forward.We know that the `Coalition Government’ is not bound by Browne either way but he was clearly asked to make an informed view of the situation.

    Surely, to contemplate any raising of Tuition Fees would squarely impact on the aspiration of Government to promote `social mobility’ and fairness.It should have as a core message that working class kids have every right to attend the best Universities and do well?

  • If we pledged not to raise student fees, we should not raise student fees, and not just because of our credibility. Clegg should stand firm on this one, or at the very least he should order an abstention and then ALL our MPs disobey.

    So, tuition fees are the straw to break the back? How many more straws will you claim will break the back before you stick on a position? How much longer can you keep whining “it’s all Labour’s fault” when it’s clear that it’s not Labour changing your policies – it’s Cameron.

    How much, up to now, have you reversed your position on yet claimed it was your original position all along?

    it’s bloody hard to be in government isn’t it – and once the electorate have seen that you’ll go back on anything and everything you’ve ever said just to keep Cameron + Clegg together – you’re done for. To make it doubly hard – the Tories proved this week that the Liberals don’t have any influence at all over them with things that matter. Trident, student fees, married couple’s allowance, child benefit.

    Your only reason for justifying this Coalition is now clear. AV. That miserable little reform.

    And you’re going to lose that one by a mile…

  • If the cuts to univs come through as we are expecting, then either students will pay more or get taught less. Much bigger classes, and much less contact time. It is not clear to me that all students prefer that to paying more.

  • One of the main reasons I voted Lib Dem is that I was told that you intended to remove fees altogether. Was that just one more lie to get votes?

  • John Fraser 7th Oct '10 - 9:30pm

    A lot of you guys are assuming that Clegg is in favour of our opposition to university Fees. If you look at the history he’s been trying to dump this policy ever since he got elected.

  • @William – he may have to make a statement according to party policy, but Clegg and Cable have consistently tried to dump the tuition fees opposition. Its just he loses each time.

  • One of the problems facing Clegg and Cameron on this issue is the pressure to raise fees from inside the university sector itself, i.e the Russell group. This group have openly indicated their desire to raise fees massively in order, as they see it, to keep up with the world’s best universities. So, whatever Clegg and Cable might want, and Browne might suggest, when you have the big hitters in the sector openly wanting fees to rise, it does make the situation less than straightforward. So whatever Clegg and Cable might want, in the long term the Russell group will keep up the pressure and might even move to ‘go it alone’. Creating an even greater hierarchy in the sector than currently exists.

  • Personally I don’t think that some universities should be able to raise their fees above others.

    I think it is high time Oxbridge ended their hegemony. The fact of the matter is that there are now so many applicants to Oxbridge with the required intelelct and grades to do their courses that their selection process mainly relies on tutors judging peoples’ characters and extra-curriculur activities. That approach has an inherent and unfair bias, and Oxbridge shouldn’t be allowed to use non-academic criterion to judge whether someone should get into an academic course.

    Oxbridge keep lobbying to be able to raise fees, in effect to retain their place at the top of the league table. What I eant to know is… why can’t other, essentially ‘equally good’, if not as prestigious, universities finally be equalised with Oxbridge and treated as equal by employers. They keep staying on step ahaed with their lobbying for extra cash and higher fees, but we have reached a point where there are simply not enough places in Oxbridge for all the people who objectively ‘deserve’ to go there.

  • John Fraser 10th Oct '10 - 5:33pm

    @Wiliam Cullerne Bown

    Attempts to drop by press interviews at the Autumn conference prior to the general election resulting in the Federal Policy Committee having to amend their own motion to clarify that the policy was still there.

    Attempts by other orange bookist to keep it out of the previous Education Policy paper … again overruled by FPC can’t prove this one on Nick but he certainly was not speaking in favour.

    De facto dropping the polict during the coalition agreement by . Stating that Lib dems MPs would only be allowed to abstain thus giving the Tories carte blanch to do what they like without threatening the governments majority .

    I can only think he wanted a cheap round of applase at conference . Always read the small print when Nick speaks .He gave no time schedule so made no commitment .

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