Students

An Open Letter to Liberal Democrat MPs


Dear Sirs/Madams

Today, as you are no doubt aware, is a hugely important day. It is also the biggest test of your moral fibre that you will undergo, I suspect, in this Parliament.

This is the pledge, clear and unambiguous, which you all signed. It meant something then. Does it not now?

You have been considered the “party of students” since the Blair government introduced tuition fees in 1998 (Teaching and Higher Education Act 1998, c.30), and since then you have campaigned relentlessly on this. I’d point out that in elections following this, you gained 17 seats (before the 2010) election, something in which I posit your student-friendly stance played a large part in.

 

And at the election in May, you took it one step further. Every one of your Prospective Parliamentary Candidates signed the NUS’ “vote for students” pledge. Maybe I should remind you what it said:

“I pledge to vote against any increase in fees in the next parliament and to pressure the government to introduce a fairer alternative”

It’s a remarkably clear political promise, don’t you think? And for every one of your party’s candidates to sign it sent a powerful message to students: ‘Vote for us, and we will fight for you. We will oppose any attempt to raise fees as our principle concern’ And it worked. You might have lost seats at the 2010 election, but I can assure you that you were viewed by students as the best choice, and they voted for you en mass, precisely because of your pledge.

Now, I understand that coalition means compromise. I understand that you weren’t going to be able to get all of your policies. But what sticks in the craw is that despite the fact that you were elected on this promise (I’ll be honest with you, only the real hardcore of Lib Dem supporters, and people with an active interest in politics care about electoral reform- most of the general public just don’t care) you didn’t press for it.

Your party has meekly and quietly accepted the rise in tuition fees, and I would highlight this passage in the coalition agreement:

If the response of the Government to  Lord Browne’s report is one that Liberal  Democrats cannot accept, then arrangements  will be made to enable Liberal Democrat MPs  to abstain in any vote.

I honestly don’t see how this is a victory. What it says, is if the government decided that they were going to raise tuition fees, Lib Dems would still have to break their promise, only through abstention rather than actually expressing their views. You have been, in other words, gagged. The agreement you signed was not to not vote for an increase, but to vote against an increase.

The end result of this will be that prospective students will be dissuaded from university by the prospects of massive debts. It makes no odds that you’re giving token gestures to make the repayment less harsh, people will still look at £27,000 worth of debt and think “No thank you”. Hence a great many capable, brilliant, but poor students will be put off the higher education that could be the gateway to their future success, and the country will lose out as a result. We benefit nothing from higher education becoming the purview of the rich and privileged.

If you look outside Parliament this afternoon, you will see thousands of people there protesting. If you go to any of the major university towns and cities, you will find their centres besieged by protesters. They aren’t there because “they don’t understand” the measures. They aren’t there because the NUS has misled them. They are there because these measures are massively unpopular, and yet you who promised to oppose them are lining up behind the Conservatives on this. Motions have been proposed to delay the vote, in order to give time for a proper investigation into the impacts, and the possible alternatives. You have even voted against those.

Today, as I said above, is a hugely important day, for you especially. This day, and your response to it, will be long remembered. Some of you will vote for the increase, and be remembered as turncoats and spineless opportunists. Some of you will abstain, and be remembered as cowards who let others walk all over the promises they had made. Some of you will vote against the measures, and be remembered as heroes.

It’s not often that a chance to be a political hero comes along. I hope that you will make the correct choice.

 

Yours faithfully

 

Matthew S. Dent

Student

Tuition Fees and Broken Promises


"We will scrap unfair university tuition fees so that everyone has the chance to get a degree, regardless of their parents' income" The Liberal Democrat Manifesto 2010, p32

Does anyone else remember the Lib Dem manifesto?  I know hardly anyone read it, but presumably most of you were aware of it’s existence? Well, even if you weren’t, you won’t be surprised to hear that it contained this particular gem on page 32: “We will scrap unfair university tuition fees so that everyone has the chance to get a degree, regardless of their parents’ income”.

This has been a staple of Liberal Democrat policy for years. They have built their voter base on it, attracting idealistic students who don’t want to graduate university in mountains of debt. Everyone knows this, just as everyone knows that the Conservatives attracts the rich, and the working classes vote Labour.

It seems, however, that the Lib Dems themselves have forgotten this. In anticipation of the Browne Review publishing its findings tomorrow, speculation is rife that it will recommend that tuition fees be dramatically raised. The current figure that seems to be being batted around at the moment is somewhere in the region of £7,000. Now, I realise that whilst I may be many things (a law student, a writer, a lay political ranter and Labour Party member), I am not a mathematician. So if I’m wrong on this, someone please correct me, but I don’t think that raising them to £7,000 constitutes “scrapping unfair university tuition fees”.

The obvious ramifications on this are those for the Lib Dems. It was their one policy that won serious support. Students are a massive voting sector, who on mass tend to swing towards the Lib Dems. And now they have, as part of the coalition, agreed to allow those people to take a massive hit.

But this runs deeper than that. Very few people at the moment are arguing that free university education is possible. But what is clear is that the increasing debt that graduates are leaving university with are not a good thing. More than doubling that debt is going to radically alter the educational landscape, and be a serious dissuading factor for those from poorer backgrounds, against going to university.

The rich will still be able to attend, and get their degrees. They can afford to shoulder the debt, if not the hiked tuition fees themselves. And when you add to this the speculation that universities will be able to charge over that amount, for those who can pay it.

Which is just brilliant, don’t you think? All the progress we’ve made towards equality, away from elitism, away from the idea that those with money deserve better than those without. All the progress we’ve made towards a fairer society, and the Lib Dems get into government at it’s immediately started to be unpicked.

So here it is. This is what we’re faced with. If students thought that they were going to be immune from the cuts and chaos that’s going around at the moment, we were wrong. We need to find our voices and stand up. We need to tell the world that, no, we’re not just a drain on society, we’re going to be contributing to the economy by paying higher rate tax after we graduate and get jobs. We need to say that education shouldn’t be the purview of the rich, it shouldn’t be exclusive to the privileged.

And to Clegg, Cable, and the other Lib Dems who sold their souls for seats at the Cabinet table, know this: the British electorate will not be forgetting your broken promises any time soon. You keep justifying your cooperation with the Tories as “liberalising” what would otherwise be a harsh conservative government. So do some goddamn liberalising.

One Step Forward, Two Steps Back


 

Vince Cable's suggestions of a graduate tax to replace tuition fees, are somewhat damaged by other more regressive suggestions.

 

The Coalition government has today proposed introducing a graduate tax to fund higher education in this country, rather than the current system of loans that sees graduates leaving university with crippling amounts of debt. If this sounds at all familiar, it’s because it’s something that has been suggested many times, by many people- most recently by shadow secretary for education, Ed Balls.

But let’s not dwell on that. After all, it’s surely a good thing if the government accepts it when the opposition has a good idea? Anyway, that’s not my point here. My point is the compromise that is inherent in any coalition, and in particular a coalition between such polar opposites as the Tories and the Lib Dems. Every achievement that one side makes is tempered by an achievement of the other. Or rather, every concession the Lib Dems manage is tempered by some crazy rubbish that I sincerely hope comes from the other side.

Take the student finance, for example. Along with the graduate tax idea (which I welcome, as I did when Mr Balls suggested it), the announcement contains suggestions of all manner of things, including shortening degrees to two years. I’m not sure how many degrees this would actually apply to, but I can’t think of many where it would be a good idea. I’m a law student, about to go into my second year. Now, I know I didn’t really shout too much about it, but I had my exams a few months ago. And they were hard.

The stress that I went through this year, and last year, is largely due to the massive quantity of “stuff” I have to learn and remember. It might not seem like it, but there really is a lot to learn in Law. And I’m not nearly arrogant enough to assume that other courses aren’t the same. My point is that the stress levels, and the amount of material covered is at the limits of what is manageable. If you reduce course duration to two years, one of two things will happen: either the rate of stress-related breakdowns will increase, or the standard of graduates will fall. Neither of which seems desirable.

And that’s not to mention the potential for forming a two tiered education system, which seems to be something the Tories quite like the idea of. If both two and three-year courses are offered, at different prices, you’ll end up with those whose families happen to be rich enough to afford it getting the higher standard three-year education, and those whose families aren’t so well off having to settle for two-year “basics” degrees.

Now, there’s already a divide between the education that the rich and the poor receive, under the current system. A graduate tax would do a lot to allieviate that, as money wouldn’t be the primary obstacle for students from a poorer background, but rather they would be judged on academic ability.

A double standard of education based on wealth would destroy any benefit there, however. And it’s not just that it’s against the interests of social justice. It’s quite clearly against the interests of the country as a whole. What the public seems to misunderstand, and certain politicians are keen to encourage them to, is that students are not a drain on the taxpayer. They are an investment, by the country. Yes, it requires money from the taxpayers to educate them, but who gets the benefits? Who gets treated by the doctors trained at our universities? Who is defended by the lawyers? Who is going to rely on the graduates of the future?

I’m not even going to answer that for you. It’s just galling that I’m forced to watch every sensible, liberal, progressive suggestion that is made by this coalition of contradictions, be checked by some conservative, reactionary nonsense. What our economy is going to need as it crawls out of recession is not less jobs, nor smart and capable people excluded from the education which would benefit them and the country, simply because they weren’t lucky enough to be born into money.