I’m furious! It’s taken me several days to calm down enough to write a blog post that would not see me thrown out of the party, or at the very least lose a number of friends. But here I am, back on the issue of ‘graduate contributions’, the new, wonderful euphemism for student fees.
My background is that I believe that a first degree should be funded out of general taxation. That way those who benefit from increased earnings due to their degree pay more, and businesses and society in general pay a little too for the benefit of having a skilled and educated society. Along with a large number of others in the party, I fought for FPC to adopt that position and then for it to form a part of the manifesto for the 2010 general election. What I did not fight for was for all our MPs and most of our candidates to sign the NUS pledge to oppose an increase in student fees. But sign it they did, and I was pretty pleased that they did so.
That pledge signature is the reason I am so furious. I am not stupid. I realise the Liberal Democrats are not the majority in government. I understand that we need to compromise and am pleased that we have got some of our policies into government and have deflected some of the worst excesses of the Conservatives. I know that Liam Byrne was speaking the truth when he wrote that now infamous note: there is no money left. So we compromise on our manifestos. That’s the way it goes in coalitions – which is certainly what the Liberal Democrats were hoping and campaigning for and what we would see more of under AV or any other changed form of voting. But our MPs didn’t just stand on the corporate manifesto. They garnished it with personal pledges and now they should stick to them.
I had kept my fury under control until this article from Jo Swinson was published on Lib Dem Voice. Jo is an MP that I had a great deal of respect for. She has always spoken up for young people and I would have been surprised if she had not signed the NUS pledge. Her stated reasons for now going back on her word are almost laughable: bringing out the old ‘we can’t get everything we want’ speech and then stating that Browne compromise is really progressive. It’s not as progressive as abolishing fees and putting the cost on income tax, And if you really meant that the pledge was only a pledge when in opposition Jo, either you shouldn’t have signed it. or you shouldn’t have accepted the position of Vince’s PPS.
Yes, not only is Jo the unpaid assistant of the architect of the student betrayal, but of course she is a Scottish MP, representing a Scottish constituency. Her young people will not be burdened with an extra 9% tax, sorry ‘contribution’ at the time they are trying to save a deposit, but a home, start a family etc. Oh no. Only a month ago, the Scottish Liberal Democrats, of which Jo is Deputy Leader, debated the issue of graduate contributions and decided not to increase the amounts paid. So why does Jo state that “without a way to replace this funding, our universities and students would suffer. Mass university closures, slashing of student numbers, severe reduction in teaching quality“? Why will this not be the case for universities in Scotland, who will not be charging huge fees to their home-grown students?
But strangely, my real concern stems from a statement made by Jo and other Lib Dem MPs backing the Browne stuff that “Abolishing tuition fees remains Liberal Democrat policy“. Suppose in 2015 the Liberal Democrats and the economy are in such a position that we can look at abolishing fees. What happens to those who have started at university in the meantime? Here I declare an interest. Our daughter is in the first year of her GCSE studies. With some hard work, she hopes to start university in 2014. Will she be one of a five year cohort of students who will be paying 9% more tax than their older and younger peers for most of their working lives? This has not been thought through properly – or is it just a meaningless sop to the party faithful? Can some of our MPs not just dome clean and admit that they have managed to outfox the membership and secure the policy on student finance that they really wanted?
I am sorry that my injured foot means that I am unable to walk more than a couple of hundred yards at the moment, as I would love to march with past, present and future students to express my disgust at this coalition policy and my support for those Lib Dem MPs prepared to ‘Just say No’. We need more of them with the courage of their convictions.