Tuition Fees

I’m disappointed to hear that Lib Dem ministers will be going through the government lobbies to vote in favour of raising tuition fees in England.

The policy itself isn’t something that I agree with but nor is it something I know how to solve easily either. I do think that making all the tertiary education institutions into universities was a mistake. As someone with a degree earned at a polytechnic as well as degrees from two ancient Scottish universities, I’d say that we should have resolved the binary divide in a different way than simply making every polytechnic or central institution into a university.

What just sticks in the craw is those photographs of Lib Dem ministers signing pledges just over six months ago saying that they would oppose rises in tuition fees. I can’t really see where any credibility can be found if you do the opposite of what you pledged to do when facing the voters just six months later. The claim that Nick Clegg made that he signed the pledge not expecting to be in government and might not have signed if he had thought he would be seems to me to be one of the most cynical things I’ve heard in the political arena. The idea in politics is to get into government to do what you said you would do.

Those photographs of ministers signing that pledge will be endlessly recycled by their opponents who will ask voters why they should ever be trusted again.

It seems to me to be a fair question.


  1. Pretty much agreed, too. I’m not sure how many chances I’ll give the Lib-Dems to retain their integrity in the next 4-5 years.
    I was thinking, come the next General Election, there’ll be arguments like “but they didn’t expect to be stuck in coalition with the Tories” or “just vote LD all the *more*, get them in without compromising by coalition” and some people will use it as an excuse to go back to Labour.

    Perhaps there are too many parties on the lefty side, versus monolithic Tories on the right. If someone could unify aspects of Greens+LibDems+SNP+independents, that would be nice… (and it would be a leftie “unify” not a uniformity, too. 😉

  2. Kelvin – As someone with a degree from a Central Institution, I do agree with you about making Central Institutions Universities. I have no affinity with what my college has now become.

    You raise two issues in your posting:
    — How Tertiary Education is funded
    — The making of “election promises”

    How do we fund Tertiary Education? I was lucky getting my degree at the end of the period that fees were paid, however did not get a grant. I feel for those who are now graduating with tens of thousands of student loans to pay off, and job prospects not good. I am lucky I have got a job in the subject of my degree and paying into the exchequer through my income tax. What about those who do not have jobs and still have the spectre of loans hanging over them.

    Now the government wants to increase the indebtedness of graduates by having higher tuition fees. Look at someone who is about to leave school. Consider this, they decide to go to university, leave university with large debt, get a job, have to contribute into a pension scheme, pay off student debt – – where are they going to find the money to get together a deposit for a mortgage and pay off a mortgage (or the deposit on a rented flat and the rent).

    In the days when there were less university graduates, a degree was usually a guarantee of a job, and after a period you would become a higher rate tax payer. When I graduated, the basic rate of income tax was 33%. However over the years it has been the fashion to cut taxes whilst the level of expenditure has not decreased. All right whilst in boom years or in the early 1990’s when the “family silver” was being sold off. But what now?

    Turning to the making of “election promises”

    The only party who knew to full state of the economy (or should have done) during the election campaign earlier this year was Gordon Brown’s Labour Party.

    Everyone else had to wait until they won and could see the state of “UK plc” accounts to see how bad (or good) it really was, as opposed to labour spin. How much in debt were we really. There is the note a labour treasury minister left behind – “There is no money left”(sic)

    As regards all those photographs of LibDem candidates signing those pledges before the election, in 20/20 hindsight would they have done it? As a previous General Election candidate would you have done it, and stood by/regretted it later if you have found yourself in the position of the current LibDem MP.

    In fact making election promises could be considered a gamble. If you win outright, then it is well and truly your problem when you can not keep them. But what is worse is what happens when a coalition is formed. Both sides have to compromise to a greater of lessor extent and their respective supporters (and voters) feel betrayed if a policy that was in a manifesto is subsequently amended or overturned following discussions with the coalition partners.

    There will be more of these issues coming up over the next 4 1/2 years as the coalition gets to grip with the state of the UK economy.

    Nick Clegg should have realised that being in opposition is easy, being in government is difficult as you have to carry through decisions which are unpopular not only in the country, but also in your own party.

    I will see how it goes over the next few years. It may be that the LibDems moderate some of the more right wing policies of David Cameron’s party.

    • >As regards all those photographs of LibDem candidates signing those pledges before the election, in 20/20 hindsight would they have done it? As a previous General Election candidate would you have done it, and stood by/regretted it later if you have found yourself in the position of the current LibDem MP.

      Had I made an unabiguous pledge to oppose something, then I would have felt I had no choice but to oppose it if elected and also oppose it if in government.

      To be honest, I struggle to see any other ethical alternative.

  3. Ethics? Call me cynical, but I’m reminded of the (possibly apocryphal ) story of a candidate who, when running on a “No more lies!” platform, was accused of “denying the very nature of politics” 😉

    I can understand parents thinking that the proposed tuition fees rise represent very poor value for money. The old degree=automatic good job calculation hasn’t be true for a while (at least outside of Medicine and the hard sciences; I gather law produces almost as many unemployed graduates as the arts & humanities!). And, whilst (IMHE) students get access to world-leading academics in Honours, first and second year ‘teaching’ is largely conducted by G.T.A.s (i.e. just more students, many of whom would be unable to shake off the hangovers long enough to qualify for actual teacher training). Waste of money. Have often heard people older than me sing the praises of grammar schools, but presumably its too totemically a right-wing idea for the lib dems to endorse?

  4. Martin Ritchie says

    I agree – any Lib Dem who stood on a no raise in tuition fees ticket should vote against, even if it means a resignation from a ministerial role. It was a key aspect of their policy for goodness sake!

  5. Richard says

    Dear Kelvin
    Like you I hold bits of paper from various establishments, one from one of the ancients and others from contemporary institutions of learning. I had the enormous privilege a few years ago of being asked to teach part time in a postgrad course which I’m still doing. I agree the solution is hard to identify- I’m not qualified to offer a decent solution but what I do know is that our politicians have failed our young and I would argue vulnerable, for all their outward look of confidence. One of the worst things to do was to turn education against itself by signing up to the devils charter of greed is good, profit is king.
    Re political ethics- I am humbled by your unsullied and high standards. Would that those in that particular arena share but a modicum of your values. Sadly, as a political amateur my natural instinct and understanding has always been that, by and large, politicians say what they need to say to get where they need to go. And those whom they profess to serve suffer. You are right to sound cynical about Nick Clegg’s stance on “pledge”.

  6. Vicky Gunn says

    Ok a couple (or four) comments:
    1. Like Kelvin I think an unequivocal pledge is exactly that…this morning, however, I heard a Scots Lib-Dem on Radio Scotland almost blaming the electorate for not voting more strongly for a LibDem govt which would then have been able to deliver on promises. I have truly mixed feelings about this approach to the electorate, as it seems not to care very much for those of us who did vote LibDem even knowing that our vote was an expression of support for their views of university tuition.
    2. The issue here is much less about the fees (though these are a practical expression) and much more about the huge ideological shift from State sponsored higher education which raises the whole nation’s intellectual, literacy, and critical abilities to such education being about the benefit of the individual. In this later ideology the benefit to the individual is financial. A side effect of this might be some of the things achieved under State sponsorship, more likely it will lead to an increasingly stratified tertiary education system which embeds certain types of disadvantage and is unable to compete on a global stage where there is a growth in State sponsored higher education (especially in Asia)
    3. I train GTAs to teach and find many of them to be more committed and interested in teaching than is suggested here. Moreover, I have undertaken research on GTAs as teachers and they actually divide in terms of approaches to teaching in almost exactly the same way as experienced lecturers. The biggest difference relates to time on task (design, implementation of teaching) which GTAs are less efficient at and thus spend more time on. It might be worth noting that until the 1960s a PhD was not a pre-requisite to teach in a university for many subjects and only became fully a pre-requisite in the late 1980s. Arguably our GTAs are just as good (or not) as most of the lecturers who taught this generation of lecturers. Many are better.
    4. The comments Ryan makes about graduate employment are misleading. Unemployment rates are not fixed and many Humanities graduates have a graduate level job within three years of completing their degree. The real issue is the graduate premium – ie the amount more one earns in a life time if one has a degree. The Humanities degree cannot, with this measure, compete with any of the professional degree programmes. Yet given the benefits to the Scottish economy of a vibrant Arts/Cultural community, from a state perspective this is an area in which to invest.
    SO, briefly…let Scotland NOT introduce fees but a state wide graduate tax that can be used to maintain the Scottish sector and an ideology that suggests that Higher education is a good thing for all. (Including all the things that come from university research that make our days just a little easier than those of our grandparents’ generations); let Scotland build a reputation as a place where teaching and research are valued as ends in themselves as well as a means to a financial end for individuals;
    Erm, sorry this has become a bit of a rant. I guess readers will get the picture……

  7. >>>>4. The comments Ryan makes about graduate employment are misleading. Unemployment rates are not fixed and many Humanities graduates have a graduate level job within three years of completing their degree.

    ‘Many’, not ‘all’ supports my contention that there’s not an ‘automatic’ link between said disciplines and good jobs. Of course most students have their eyes open these days, but ‘within three years’ arguably isn’t that impressive. Do parents spend thousands on tuititon fees for their kids assuming that they’ll be unemployed (or in jobs that don’t require degrees) for over two years post graduation?

    Most GTAs I knew/know personally were more interested in completing their doctorates than any kind of teaching career (given that IIRC there’s ten times more PhD students in English Literature in the UK than there are available permanent academic posts in the discipline is of course sensible). People’s MMV, but lecturers who take tutorials are (certainly in Glasgow! :-)) of course often experts in their field, whereas graduate students asking undergrads about particular texts ( that they might have read once themselves) and facilitating boilerplate bookchat is (IMHO) a less useful and interesting form of ‘teaching’.

  8. Pam Richmond says

    I agree completely that one of the fundamental issues here (which is not being explored enough by the media) is the privatisation of higher education, and the dangerous argument that taxpayers should not be expected to pay for something from which they do not directly benefit: why should my taxes be spent on the NHS, if I am well? and why should they be spent on child benefit and education if I don’t have children? Where does this argument end?
    Clegg et al may have been foolish to sign this pledge, but having done so, to renege on it will cause an irreversible decline in the respect in which politicians are held. Breaking such an unequivocal promise brings all politics into disrepute and the lesson politicians will learn is not “we mustn’t break our promises” but “we mustn’t make clear promises about anything”.

  9. Agatha says

    I read an article somewhere recently where it said that research shows the optimum % of the population to educate to degree standard is about 30%. Labour set a target of 50% and achieved 43%. Maybe the taxpayers would be happy to fund the 30% level?

  10. Strangely, I was thinking about these issues earlier and came across and article on the uni newspaper – calling for staff pay rises – that actually supports some of my points.

    Essays customarily make up 40%+ of the final mark for level 1 or 2 undergraduate courses – and get marked, by GTAs, in 1/2 hour and for the princely sum of £3.05 (and everyone knows what you get when you pay peanuts ;-)) And students (unless Scottish) have to shell out £1800 to an eyewatering £27,000 pa?

    Of course it could be argued that lectures are where students get their money’s worth. But I had ,on average, a mighty 3 a week in my last year of Single Honours English Literature. There was actually an interesting piece in (of all places) The Sunday Times last week, pointing out that whilst middle-class parents expect to pay for four years while their little darlings find themselves, students from other classes or of other ages would much rather have shorter courses, as they don’t want to be heavily indebted for the vapid yoof languors of the “student experience”

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