Simon Hughes, the Liberal Democrat deputy leader who hit the headlines when he refused to vote in favour of the coalition policy to raise tuition fees to £9000 has now been appointed the government’s advocate for access to education. In a move that Labour MPs and protesters have denounced as “utter hypocrisy” on the part of the coalition government, Hughes will spend 6 months visiting schools and talking to young people and families from disadvantaged backgrounds to communicate to them the key points of a policy he has staunchly argued against.
The position will be double edged, requiring Hughes both to communicate with the general public and to report back to and advise the coalition. He will explain the reality of the new tuition fees system to pupils from poorer backgrounds, helping them fully to understand the new policy and how the scholarship and aid schemes available will be beneficial to them. Then he will report back to the government, advising them on the best implementation of the available financial aid, the optimum replacement for the lost Education Maintenance Allowance and how to create strict measures to deter the majority of universities from charging the highest possible tuition fees of £9000.
So is this, as members of the opposition party would have us believe, a hugely cynical move on the part of a publicity conscious government to win over Liberal Democrat left-wingers and public opinion using the “window dressing” of a high-profile protester to encourage acceptance of their unpopular policy? Has Hughes himself ‘sold out’ and abandoned his principles in accepting the position?
The answer is yes, and no.
Everything about David Cameron’s letter appointing Hughes to the position and explaining its function drips with supercilious pomp, self-satisfied security in the coalition’s plans to raise fees sky high and the firm implication that the ‘advocate for access’ will make no material difference to controversial coalition policy. He smugly reminds us that there is no threat to the cap that has now been set on fees, declaring that “the advocate will focus on the effective communication and delivery of the government’s policy programme, within the current budgetary parameters.”
To add insult to injury, the Prime Minister even has the gall strongly to imply that the outrage from protesters and the risks to access to education have been caused, not by the coalition’s tuition fees policy itself, but rather by the misinformation and blurring of the facts that have arisen as a result of the media storm.
“In the heat of the recent debate” he says, “some of the elements of the package have been obscured and there is a material risk that young people – particularly those from disadvantaged groups – may be deterred from applying to university…as a result of being misled about those financial impacts of the package.” This claim has been derided by opposition ministers as a desperate attempt to shirk acknowledgement of the fact that a direct result of the enormous raise in tuition fees will be a hugely detrimental impact on the numbers of underprivileged students making it into higher education. They point out the utter hypocrisy of a government appointing an advocate for access to education at a time when the budget for aid for this issue has been axed in real terms from £360 million (as confirmed by the Browne report) to a mere £150 million.
Whether Cameron’s motive is a feeble and facetious attempt to pull the wool over the eyes of his detractors or to mollify and force on-side one of the most vocal and politically influential opposers of the scheme within the coalition parties is unclear. Either way, his declaration that “for them to be deterred from entering university as a result of misinformation would be a tragedy for them,” reeks of unintended irony.
Yet all this does not mean that Hughes himself has sold out as the opposition party claim. One does not need to assume that he has meekly and naively allowed himself to be coddled and mastered by the Conservative leader into abandoning his principles, nor that he has performed an ideological U-turn, as his critics suggest.
There is in fact a great deal of nobility in the actions of a man who, having stood up for his principles and protested against a policy he did not believe in, is then able to swallow his pride and risk his political career by accepting defeat and immediately getting stuck in to make the best of it. Here is a politician who has not chosen to make a martyr-like stand and strike an injured and detached pose upon losing a battle he knew could not be won when he started, yet participated in for the sake of principle. Instead, as he explains, he has accepted that “Parliament has settled the maximum university fee level in England from 2012 and we now have a critically important task to ensure that every potential student has access to all the facts about the costs, benefits and opportunities of further and higher education.”
In fact he might be the only politician we have seen in this whole debacle whose sole motive and aim has been the genuine support and improvement of access to education in this country for those from the poorest backgrounds. Many such pupils are to be found in his own constituency of Bermondsey and Southwark. Whilst the debate was still open he did all he could behind the scenes to press for a broader package of access aid for less privileged pupils. Now the deed has been done he is preparing to do all in his power to influence and shape the new system to the same end.
Hughes’ new role should supposedly see him “develop with the government, particularly the Department for Education and the business department an engagement strategy which will allow young people to input into policy development on access to education”. If he has been naïve or over-ambitious at any turn, it is perhaps in his hope, against overwhelming evidence to the contrary, that Cameron’s government will pay any attention at all to the views and concerns of young people.