What comes after tuition fee abolition?

By Chris McCarthy

One of the most interesting consequences of the New Labour dominance of British politics was a convergence of policy to the centre ground. The central arguments were not so much about what we wanted to accomplish as a country, but how we would go about achieving those goals. I can still remember the exasperated voices of the electorate as they expressed their indifference to the two main political parties and their near identikit policies on the major issues. One party, the Liberal Democrats, ventured to be different; sometimes they got it right (their opposition to the Iraq war being a glowing example) and sometimes they got it wrong.

At the party’s Autumn Conference, leader Nick Clegg suggested that the abolition of tuition fees – a key pillar of the Liberal Democrats’ policy since they were first introduced – might be prohibitively expensive given the state of the Treasury’s coffers. This was not received well by the party faithful who felt the decision had been taken without consultation and risked the loss of key votes at the next election. It comes with some relief, then, that Clegg has confirmed the party will retain their pledge to scrap tuition fees and in doing so has offered the electorate a genuine choice on the issue at the next election.

Critics on the left will argue that the revised plans to abolish fees over six years is an unsatisfactory fudge. Others will suggest the decision is an irresponsible spending commitment (costing £7.5 billion in total) given that the national debt is forecast to hit £1.5 trillion. There is a grain of truth in both accusations but until the full costings are released nearer the election we won’t know what other services or projects will be cut to make this proposal affordable. This was a strategic decision first and foremost with the minutiae to be worked out later.

What this announcement lacked wasn’t more detail on how it would be afforded, but what the Lib Dems would do to ensure that those graduates, now debt-free, find work that maximizes their skills. It would be tempting but mistaken to suggest that in six years the job market will be buoyant and expanding. Cuts in the public sector will be severe and prolonged and unlikely to begin in earnest until 2011/2012.

It was a terrible coincidence of events that saw a record number of university students graduate into a hostile job environment characterised by rising unemployment and savage cuts – we may very well have ‘lost a generation’. Abolishing tuition fees could help create a more egalitarian society by providing the opportunity of higher education to those who would otherwise be unable to afford it. Fees are but one part of the equation, however, and without a corollary effort to provide suitable jobs to recent graduates, the Liberal Democrat proposal risks offering little more than false hope.


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