The long route to fair funding of Higher Education

I spent over four years as the Liberal Democrat shadow minister for higher education and skills.  Ming Campbell appointed me to the role when he became leader and Nick Clegg promoted me to our shadow cabinet when he took over.   Externally, in Parliament and around the country the job was hugely enjoyable.  Inside the Lib Dems it was always a challenge and sometimes infuriating.

The party had rightly opposed Blair’s introduction of tuition fees in 1997.  I was a young councillor then in Bristol and went on the NUS march in the city.  Fees gave the Lib Dems the first major policy difference with an otherwise popular New Labour government and provided a useful clear dividing line for campaigns.  A decade on when I tried to steer the Lib Dems in a different direction the dividing line had become more important than the policy to many colleagues.

In 2004 Labour legislated for top up fees.  From 2006 fees would triple to £3,000 but more crucially they would no longer be paid by students while studying.  Instead they would pay back a debt via a tax on their earnings.  It would be a graduate tax, albeit a very crude one. The first graduates under this regime would emerge in the summer of 2009 and start their payments in April 2010.  My challenge from 2006 was to give the Lib Dems a policy that made sense to the students and graduates of 2010, probably coinciding with a general election.

There were several elements to this challenge.  First, the policy was a bit of a one club in the caddy of our adult education policy.  Most people don’t go to university, nor should they and we had rejected Labour’s 50% participation target.  So we needed to have something to say to adults who wanted to study in FE Colleges, become apprentices or take up another vocational or even leisure course.  As for those who did go to university, about 40% of undergraduates studied part time.  They still paid their fees up front but the Lib Dems had no manifesto pledge to help.  Our policies for adult learners needed to be more inclusive.

Secondly, what was the point of maintaining outright opposition to fees?  I certainly always felt that expecting students to pay while studying was wrong in principle, even though there was help for many of those from poor backgrounds.  But the new regime from 2006 did away with up front payment in favour of a graduate pay back scheme.  To me, this was nowhere near as toxic as a fee.  I could see the mood change among my own (very large) student electorate in Bristol West.  The NUS began to shift ground too.   If the policy of fee abolition was to have any justification then it would have to be a demonstration that even a deferred fee was narrowing the pool of people going to university or frustrating fair access to our best universities.  On neither ground was the evidence compelling.

All my political career I have championed social mobility and the need to tackle inequality.  In 21stcentury Britain we have too many people destined to stay in the poverty trap that held back their parents.  The best escape ladder is education.  But there are shocking levels of low attainment in many communities, with over half of children leaving school at 16 without even the basic level of 5 good GCSEs including maths and English.  This is the real education problem that needs to be solved.  If we are to widen participation at university level then we have to drive up standards at school.

In the last Parliament the Lib Dems found the right answer to helping children from poor backgrounds – the pupil premium.  This policy is now being implemented by Liberal Democrats in government.  I tried three times to change our university fees policy.  I got my way on some issues – on part time students, a greater role for FE and growth in apprentices. But on fees for full time undergraduates different parts of the party proved to be remarkably stubborn.  In 2008 and 2009 I tried to get my fellow MPs to accept that abolition of deferred fees was not the right policy.  Instead we could do more on maintenance for students, give fee bursaries and write offs for poor students or those who took shortage subjects and then have a much more progressive repayment regime for graduates.

Eventually the package was vetoed by the party’s Federal Policy Committee.  In late 2009 I made one last effort – we could maintain the language of abolishing fees but would instead have a graduate contribution scheme.  This would put us on essentially the same ground as the NUS.  My colleagues endorsed this (though a minority were still wedded to a simple message of no fees at all) and together with the party’s former Shadow Education Secretary from the 2001 Parliament, Phil Willis, I tried again to persuade the FPC to change but they wouldn’t have it.  So our 2010 manifesto kept the pledge to abolish fees, over a 6 year phase out.  It was clearly a downgraded policy and gave wriggle room for an alternative.

It was against that background that I spoke in November 2009 at the House of Commons launch of the NUS pledge to resist higher fees and to work for a fairer system.  I signed the pledge believing that the Lib Dems would in the new Parliament surely come up with just such a “fairer system”, in my mind with many of the elements I had been proposing for the previous three years.  At the same time, the Labour government had asked Lord John Browne to report on the future funding of HE.  This was widely expected to produce a justification for removing the cap on fees.  I met Browne and urged him to look at a “graduate tax” and a wide range of other issues.

In the autumn of 2010 we now have the Browne Review.  His report has some of the policies that I tried to get the Lib Dems to adopt, most notably the higher repayment threshold and fair treatment for part timers.  I have been in discussions with both Vince Cable and David Willetts on how the government can develop a package of proposals that is fair to the graduates of the future and smoothes the path to university for children from poor backgrounds.

I would like to see an approach that joins up our pupil premium with advice and mentoring for poor children, followed by adequate maintenance at university and a fee bursary. Our top universities must do more to have an intake that is a socially balanced group of the brightest and best.  The repayment regime must be progressive for all graduates.  If the essence of such a package emerges in the government’s response to Browne, then I will support the government.

I spent much of the last Parliament walking a tightrope between most of the leading members of the Lib Dem shadow cabinet who wanted to ditch the anti-fees policy in its entirety and the MPs and activists who preferred the pure and simple language of abolition.  Mario Cuomo told the US Democrats that “campaigning is poetry and government is prose.” In government now, the Liberal Democrats are discovering just how hard that prose can be to write.