Sunday, December 5, 2010
The controversial plan to raise university tuition fees in England and Wales will be voted on in the House of Commons on Thursday, December 9. The policy has been the cause of protests across the United Kingdom by students, some of which have turned violent. It has also been a source of considerable criticism and political difficulties for the Liberal Democrats and has raised questions as to the long-term viability of the Coalition government.
The new policy on tuition fees will allow universities to double the current tuition fees from £3,290 per year to around £6,000 per year, as well as allowing some universities to get special approval from the Office For Fair Access (OFFA) to raise their fees to £9,000 per year. If passed, the new fee structure will apply starting in the academic year of 2012/2013. The vote on Thursday will only be on the fee rise, with other matters being voted on in the new year following publication of a new higher education white paper.
In addition to increasing fees, the policy will increase the payment threshold at which payment is made. It is currently set at £15,000 and will rise to £21,000, but the interest rate will also rise. It is currently 1.5% but will now vary from between 0% and 3% plus inflation (using the Retail Price Index).
The fee increase follows the publication of an independent review by Lord Browne, former chief executive of BP, a process started by Peter Mandelson, the former Business Secretary. Before the election, two main options were mooted for funding reform in higher education: either an increase in tuition fees or a graduate tax. The Browne Review endorsed the former and the findings of the Review form the basis of the government’s policy. The graduate tax was supported by the Liberal Democrats before the election, and in the Labour leadership elections it was supported by Ed Balls and the winner of the leadership election, Ed Milliband.
Conservative members of the Coalition intend to vote for the reform, and the Labour opposition have been vociferous critics of the rise in fees, despite the previous government’s introduction of top-up fees. The Liberal Democratic members of the Coalition have been left in a politically difficult position regarding the fee hike and have been target of much criticism from protesters. Liberal Democrats have opposed the rise in tuition fees: their party manifesto included a commitment to ending tuition fees within six years, and many signed a pledge organised by the National Union of Students to not vote for any increase in tuition fees.
The Coalition agreement allows Liberal Democrats to opt to abstain on votes for a number of policies including tuition fees. Many Liberal Democrats are expected to abstain, and a few MPs have stated that they will vote against it including former party leader Sir Menzies Campbell, and the recently elected party president Tim Farron, as well as a number of Liberal Democrat back-benchers. Liberal Democrat party leaders have said that they will act collectively, but the BBC have said senior Liberal Democrats have admitted in private that government whips will not be able to force all Liberal Democrats to vote for the policy.
On Tuesday, the Liberal Democrats parliamentary party will meet in the Commons to decide on their collective position. If all ministers decide to vote for the policy, it will probably pass, but if only cabinet ministers (and maybe parliamentary private secretaries) vote for the policy, there is considerable risk of it not passing. If the Coalition does not manage to get the policy through Parliament, it will fuel doubts about the continued effectiveness and viability of the government.
How deputy prime minister Nick Clegg and business secretary Vince Cable vote has been of considerable controversy. Although under the Coalition agreement, they are allowed to abstain, suggestions of doing so have prompted criticism. It was suggested last week that Cable may abstain even though as business secretary he is directly responsible for higher education policy, and has been heavily involved in designing the proposals. Cable has said that Liberal Democrat support of the tuition fee changes has allowed them to push it in a more “progressive” direction.
Cable has now decided that he will vote for the policy, and argues that the policy has “a lot of protection for students from low income backgrounds and graduates who have a low income or take time out for family”. He also believes “there’s common consensus that the system we’ve devised is a progressive one”.
“Dr Cable has performed so many U-turns over the issue of university funding that he is spinning on his heels,” said National Union of Students president Aaron Porter. “That may stand him in good stead with the Strictly Come Dancing judges but the electorate will see it differently.”
Former deputy prime minister John Prescott joked on Twitter that “On tuition fees we’ve noticed Vince Cable’s remarkable transformation in the last few weeks from stalling to Mr In Between”—a reference to a previous attack Prescott made on Gordon Brown as having transformed from “Stalin to Mr Bean”.
On Question Time this week, Liberal Democrat treasury secretary Danny Alexander also confirmed he is prepared to vote for the policy but delegated the question to the meeting of Liberal Democrats on Tuesday.
The politics of the tuition fee debate may also affect the by-election taking place in Oldham East and Saddleworth following the removal of Phil Woolas, where Liberal Democrat and Conservative candidates will both be standing for the first by-election following the formation of the Coalition government.
Opposition to the policy has become the focus for a large number of protests across the country by both current university students, many school pupils and political allies of the student movement.
On November 10, between 30,000 and 52,000 protesters from across Britain marched through central London in a demonstration organised by the National Union of Students and the University and College Union, which represents teachers and lecturers in further and higher education. At the November 10 protest, a number of people occupied Millbank Tower, an office block which houses the Conservative Party. Fifty people were arrested and fourteen were injured. NUS president Aaron Porter condemned the attack and said it was caused by “those who are here to cause trouble”, and that the actions of a “minority of idiots” shouldn’t “undermine 50,000 who came to make a peaceful protest”.
Following the November 10 march, other protests have taken place across the country including an occupation at the University of Manchester, a sit-in at the John Owens Building in Manchester, and a demonstration at the University of Cambridge. A protest was also run outside the offices of The Guardian where Nick Clegg—who was giving a lecture inside the building—was executed in effigy while students protested “Nick Clegg, shame on you, shame on you for turning blue” (blue is the colour of the Conservative Party).
On November 24, a large number of protests took place across the country including a mass walk-out from universities and schools organised on Facebook, numerous university occupations, and demonstrations in Manchester, Cambridge, Birmingham, Leeds, Brighton and Cardiff, and a well-publicised occupation of University College London.
In London, a protest was planned to march down Whitehall to Parliament, but police held protesters in Trafalgar Square until they eventually broke free and ran around in a game of “cat and mouse” along the side streets around Charing Cross Road, Covent Garden and Picadilly Circus.
Simon Hardy from the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts described the police response including the controversial ‘kettling’ of protesters as “absolutely outrageous”. Green MP Caroline Lucas raised the police response including the use of kettling in the House of Commons and stated that it was “neither proportionate, nor, indeed, effective”.
On November 30, protests continued in London culminating in 146 arrests of protesters in Trafalgar Square, and protests in Cardiff, Cambridge, Newcastle, Bath, Leeds, Sheffield, Edinburgh, Liverpool, Belfast, Brighton, Manchester and Bristol. Protesters in Sheffield attempted to invade and occupy Nick Clegg’s constituency office. Occupations of university buildings started or continued at University College London, Newcastle University, Cambridge University and Nottingham University, as well as council buildings in Oxford and Birmingham.
A “day of action” is being planned on December 8, the day before the Commons vote, by the National Union of Students.