The promise to abolish tuition fees was central to the Lib Dem pitch in 2010 election. Not only did their Leader appear, signing a pledge that they would do it. Many of us were challenged by Lib Dem opponents to election meetings held for sixth form students, including 18 year olds with a vote, so the Lib Dems could thrust home their policy promise to those most likely to support it.
Their Manifesto said “Scrap unfair university tuition fees for all students taking their first degree, including those studying part time, saving them £10,000 cash”. It went on to say they could afford this “even in difficult economic times” though it would be phased in.
I remember being summonsed to a student meeting in Wokingham. I felt I had to do it, though I knew its purpose was to paint me into the mean corner. I requested that we took questions about matters other than student loans and tuition fees as well. Sure enough the first question was about fees.
The Lib Dem, UKIP and Green candidates rushed to offer no increases in fees or better . The Lib Dem offered abolition. The national Conservatives had no firm policy on the topic, other than to support Labour’s fees to date. I explained that a Conservative government would study a review of the situation, and might well conclude that there had to be an increase. I reminded an unhappy audience of the poor general financial state of the country which made a more generous government policy unlikely. I concluded that I thought any government that took over following the election was most likely to increase fees, whatever the candidates might say.
The Lib Dem promise could not have been clearer. Once in office, Dr Cable decided he would review the Browne Report and would form the policy. He was entitled to do so as the Secretary of State, but had a junior Conservative Minister for Higher Education willing and able to take a decision if he wished. Dr Cable could have allowed Mr Willetts to do the work, and the Lib Dems could have abstained on the vote, under the terms of the Coalition agreement.
Instead Dr Cable and Mr Clegg made a very conscious choice to settle the policy themselves, and to vote for it. Why have they two and half years later decided they were wrong to make the promise? Why didn’t they think keeping the promise mattered at the time? Why did Lib Dem candidates make so much of the promise at election time, and how do they feel about that now?
I did promise to argue for a higher starting threshold of income before any repayment was necessary under the loan scheme.I said I supported more generous scholarship funds from both the state and private sectors. Both these changes were incorporated into the Cable scheme with general approval from both Coalition parties.