I know what you’re thinking. The whole country is up in arms against the Liberal Democrats and their lying, student-cheating, fee-raising, pledge-abandoning, U-turning leader Nick Clegg. He promised to abolish tuition fees, charmed his way into the hearts of student voters and has now proceeded to stomp all over those pledges with the coalition plans to scrap University funding and raise fees through the roof. He wants to dump £40,000 of debt on the backs of poor struggling graduates and their families while the government gets off scot free.
Well just hold your horses there for a minute. There is a chance you may have been slightly led astray by the zealous students and their indignant, smashing antics or the excited, rather unfair reporting of the whole issue by the national press. It’s all very exciting to rampage in righteous indignation against a cruel, lying government, so of course the press have swarmed all over the story like bees to a honey pot. Much less exciting to report and much nearer to the truth however, is the real picture of the Liberal Democrat involvement in the story.
Yes, the Lib Dems did campaign vociferously on a platform of abolishing tuition fees, though not instantly as some over-simplistic coverage would have you believe, but gradually over a period of several years. Yes, they did sign a pledge that they would carry out this plan if they were voted into office. Yes, they even suggested a ‘right to recall’ scheme to allow their constituents to hold them responsible if they reneged on this promise. But that is about as far as the accuracy of the news reports and general public outrage goes. Because NO, the Liberal Democrats did NOT win the election! Yes, they have formed a coalition government, yes they have assumed some cabinet positions and do have some power in the running of the country, but they are not in charge. Cameron’s Conservatives are.
As former Lib Dem MP Evan Harris pointed out, it is only possible for election promises to be fulfilled if the party wins a full, majority election and is then in charge of governing the country. The Lib Dems haven’t chosen to go back on their promises, cackling gleefully as they burn student voodoo dolls in their cabinet offices. They don’t want this any more than we do. They didn’t campaign on abolishing tuition fees just to woo student voters, they campaigned on it because they truly believe in it – it is their party policy. So no, the government plans to raise the fees does not represent a wanton abandonment of their policy by the party, it represents the fact that they are the minority party in a coalition government and therefore simply unable to implement the policies they would like to.
Furthermore there has been absolutely no media coverage or public acknowledgement of what the Liberal Democrats and Nick Clegg have been able to do, which is to quite significantly temper and influence the government proposals for tuition fees to include much better support for poorer students and to greatly reduce the potentially devastating effect the policy could have had on access to university from disadvantaged areas, had the Conservatives been left to their own devices.
For a start, Liberal Democrat influence has raised the level of earnings at which students have to start paying back their loans from £15,000 to £21,000, meaning that a huge bracket of students earning between those figures will suddenly not have to pay anything at all. Secondly, the new system will mean that a quarter of graduates will pay less overall than they do under the current system. In addition those universities charging the highest fees will have to show increased measures to attract and support students from poorer backgrounds, with extra access schemes and scholarships available for these students. If they fail to do so, the Office for Fair Access will have the power to divert a portion of the funds they gain from fees to schemes in support of access for poorer students. Most promising of all, all universities charging above £6000 will have to take part in a national scholarship scheme for poorer students, to which the government itself has already committed £150 million.
Even more is being done for poorer students under the scheme, with maintenance grants planned to increase from £2,906 to £3,250 for students from households earning less than £25,000. All these measures are in large part due to the aggressive campaigning of leading Liberal Democrats like Nick Clegg and Vince Cable behind the scenes in Westminster. It was reported that Vince Cable was working closely with senior government officials to ensure that the scheme was made more “progressive” and it is clear that many of these sanctions and supports for poorer students will be the result of his efforts.
Yet these gargantuan steps made by the Liberal Democrats in the coalition to temper and lessen the devastating impact of the Conservative plans for tuition fees on poorer students have been completely swept under the carpet by an outraged public and an energised press. They are all prepared to leap on the bandwagon, pointing fingers and targeting the Liberal Democrats, but first they should at least stop and consider the actual facts of what the party has done. They are not in power, and as such, they simply do not have the option of imposing their own planned policy on tuition fees. What they have been able to do is to have a hugely positive influence on the proposals which have been drawn up. It seems to me a great shame that the pitchfork-wielding public seems unable to understand this, or to grant them any credit for it whatsoever.