1 Dec 2010

Principles, pledges and the weird politics of tuition fees

Krishnan Guru-Murthy blogs on news, tuition fees and the Martians.

Never mind what the Martians would think, if they happened to catch the news on tuition fees. What are we supposed to think who live here? What does it tell us about British politics?

Let’s just recap shall we? And keep up. The Liberal Democrats make a pre-election pledge to vote against rises in tuition fees for university students. It is a flagship policy but because the Lib Dems haven’t been in government for so long few people take much notice.

Key figures in the party, such as the leader, are filmed or photographed holding their pledges up for the cameras and they probably get a few extra votes with students as a result. By a quirk of numbers after the election the Lib Dems, who come third by quite a margin, join the government. They agree with their coalition partners that this is such a point of principle that they will be allowed to abstain on any vote on raising tuition fees. However as time goes on they start to see that they have little choice but to charge students more, if they are to go along with the plan to slash spending to pay off the deficit. They do a u-turn. The students’ one time hero Vince Cable tells the country, with what he says is reluctance, that there is no choice.

 The students are furious and go on mass demonstrations. The Lib Dems argue among themselves a bit but those in government hold fairly firm. The students demonstrate some more. Faced with rebellion in the party now the Lib Dem leadership start to wonder whether they can get away with this u-turn after all. Vince Cable says he might abstain, even though he believes in the policy and supports the measure. The whole Lib Dem parliamentary party is now considering abstaining on a measure they all either strongly oppose or strongly support.

What are we, mere voters, supposed to make of where principled politics lies in this saga? Is it those who stick by their pre-election pledges and intend to vote against rises in tuition fees who have the high ground? Or are they blind to the realities of public spending, the deficit and the scale of how university demands have grown?

Is it those who have looked at the books and now say there is no choice but to u-turn for the good of the country who should be applauded? Or is it the wily Mr Cable who used to think we should do one thing, now thinks we should do the opposite, but might abstain on the vote, so as not to annoy his colleagues? Is he the really principled man for telling us that he’d like to vote for the very rise in fees he once pledged himself against but will abstain so as not to destabilise the coalition and bring down the government? Is he serving the greater good?

When I was at school I used to think politics was about great principles, fundamental beliefs and doing what you thought was best for the world. Later I saw that less honourable motives could sometimes, but not always, play their part.

The truth it seems lies somewhere in between all of this, and is arguably a cock-up of presentation. The new tuition fees regime is a lot like something you might once have called a graduate tax. If you go to university and start earning a certain amount of money you will pay a higher rate of tax. The amount you pay will be capped at an amount that broadly matches the cost of your degree.

This is not a debt. You may never pay it. Even if you start paying it, you might stop if your earnings fall and the rate at which you pay the tax will change so the more you earn the more you pay – just like income tax. If they had called this a capped graduate tax instead of tuition fees would it have provoked all the political machinations and demonstrations? It’s a funny old world, as that old favourite of the students Margaret Thatcher might have said to the Martians, as they flew away laughing.