An immediate end to final year tuition fees. All tuition fees to be scrapped within 6 years. Who remembers these promises by the Liberal Democrats? I assume quite a fair amount of students, that’s who. So now that the Liberals are in bed with the Conservatives, are they still singing the same tune?
Emphatically, no. With the details of the first coalition Government since 1974 released, there was a statement made regarding tuition fees and the impending Browne Report that struck fear into students. This report looks into the current higher education system, and most importantly, the issue of tuition fees – should the current cap of £3,225 be removed or increased at its heart. What Nick Clegg and David Cameron agreed was that if the government’s response is one the Liberal Democrats “cannot accept”, then “arrangements will be made to enable Liberal Democrat MP’s to abstain in any vote”. Essentially, the cast-iron promises that so many Liberal Democrats made by signing the NUS pledge about fees, that they made to our faces during campaigning, could be meaningless. By abstaining, it is highly likely that a cap on tuition fees will be removed, and should it go the Conservative way, as reported in September last year, we could be seeing tuition fees of £7000 very soon. Some Universities are asking for this in fear of cuts by the Chancellor, George Osbourne, but that doesn’t detract from the Liberal Democrats breaking away from their manifesto so abruptly.
Let’s take a step back for a minute though – the Liberal Democrats are not in power, they are 1/7th of a coalition, so they are not fully accountable to the decisions made by Cameron et al. It is very much dominated by Conservative ideology, as they probably feel it should be, having won the most votes and seats in the election. Can this explain their change in stance? Perhaps the Liberals saw this coalition as a chance to do the greater good, and also a steal for what they got in return, in order to have a stronger say in other national issues – five cabinet ministers are Liberals no less, and Nick Clegg will be Prime Minister while David Cameron is on paternity leave. The Democrats may have had to cave in on their idea in order to establish a coalition deal, especially as the Labour party were highly unlikely to support the Liberals whole-hog either; there are reports of Labour supporting an increase to a £5000 cap instead. In fact, the Liberals were the only supporters of scrapping tuition fees – 57 of 650 MP’s, so any opposition was always going to lose comprehensively with that lowly amount of support. But why, therefore, did the Liberals feel the need to move from their position, disowning their student voters trust, if it wasn’t likely to pass Parliament?
This may seem to be the first crack in the “honest” Lib Dem armour, but there were some worrying signs that the Liberals were already contemplating axing the tuitions pledge, as far back as their party conference in Bournemouth, September 2009. On the same day that key liberal phrases such as “savage cuts” and “honesty” were proclaimed, another was being “realistic”, so much so that their flagship policy may not be affordable, given the current UK debt. This must be respected, but then knowing this, why did they push the tuition fees banner so hard going into the election – were they leading the student voters on?
Near 50% of students voted Liberal Democrat in 2005, winning in key seats surrounding Manchester, Bristol and Birmingham, where a high student population swung many seats. It is clear, following the reaction of the three televised debates, that this was the election for the Democrats to break the two-party mould of British politics. Clearer still, following their campaign, is that the Democrats didn’t want to gamble a potential breakthrough against losing its strongest set of supporters. Hindsight is a beautiful thing – but has this event lost the Liberals a group of key voters, more so than maybe even the anger mob that formed around the coalition itself, whilst also leaving them lagging behind as the “third party”?
So many questions are left to be answered again, which only the MPs themselves have the answer to, the prominent one being: why? The damning result from all this, however, is that a lot of students up and down the country have suddenly been left alienated from politics – again – unrepresented and lied to. All I can say is: welcome to politics – but I do hope people now follow the repercussions of the Browne report, of the Liberal Democrat party and the coalition, and take suitable action where possible; show that students are not apathetic, we do have a voice and it needs to be heard.