What Vince Cable wants to do next on tuition fees

What to do about tuition fees? For the Liberal Democrats, there are two frequent political mistakes made when trying to answer that question.

The first is to misunderstand the political problem from the Coalition years. Nearly all of the collapse in the Liberal Democrat poll ratings in 2010-15 came before the decision to back increases in tuition fees. Although subsequently the issue came to symbolise what many people felt about the Coalition, it was just that – the symbol, not the cause. The damage was mostly done before tuition fee decisions were made.

The second mistake, which flows from the first, is to think that tinkering with the details of how tuition fees works can bring political benefit. There may be good substantive reasons for wanting to tinker with repayment levels or interest rates. But such tinkering at a level which very rarely cuts through to a public that pays very little attention to politics.

What’s more, being in favour of tinkering a bit leaves the party marooned in that deadly swamp of ineffectual indecision courtesy of being a bit less keen on tuition fees that one major party and rather more keen on them than the other. Who is the target market for that?

Which is why Liberal Democrat leader Vince Cable has been wise to look at this issue in a rather different way and float two major changes.

Further education

One is to try to switch the talk about funding for post-18 education from being just about universities, to which only a minority – a better off minority no less, go; instead talk about how to better fund post-18 education for everyone, including further education and education later in life.

That not only reframes the discussion as being about something other than what happened in 2010. It also gives a chance to tackle that bigger problem the first mistake overlooks – that people need to have a clearer sense of what the party actually stands for.

Talking about good educational opportunities for all helps with that.

Graduate tax

Then there is the idea of switching tuition fees into a graduate tax. That’s been floated by Vince Cable in one of his pre-conference interviews, with David Howarth (co-author of the core votes pamphlet) tasked to study the details of how to make it work:

“It is a graduate tax — but people think of it as debt,” Sir Vince said.

“People don’t normally think of their future income tax obligations as debt. It’s that psychological thing that is quite problematic, and I would quite like to convert it into something that is not just a graduate tax in practice but a graduate tax in name and form.”

He insisted he still backed the principle that “highly paid” graduates should pay the hefty contribution towards their university education rather than “ordinary taxpayers”, many of whom have not been to university.

But he also argued that the £21,000 threshold at which graduates start making repayments for their university education has to be raised and a better maintenance grant system restored.

6 responses to “What Vince Cable wants to do next on tuition fees”

  1. If the Libdems had said this loudly and often and from the start, things might have been very different. I have never understood why they haven’t.

  2. It is already a graduate tax and should be properly administered as such. There are significant problems though. The lazy, arms length approach of government has allowed fee inflation across the board. The secretive cutting of support in year 3 of programmes is causing real hardship for students and families. Finally, the privatisation of the student loan book and profiteering on interest rates is a disgrace and is likely to cause the system to collapse under the weight of 30 year defaults (can kicked up the road obviously.) This should be managed by government and charged at their long term borrowing rate plus maybe 0.5% for administration.
    The lifelong learning emphasis is welcome and essential. Many years ago the Tories had a rare inclusive idea about learning acounts; something like school plus 5 years post school state funded to be used as and when needed. As usual they ditched it straight after the election.

    One final and very important point. I rate Vince and alwsys have. However, his comments about ‘why should ordinary people pay for students’ are dangerous, divisive and play into the hands of the selfish. Why should I pay tax for anyone or anything that is other to me? We have too much division in this country at the moment and a Liberal leader should not be stoking this!

  3. It’s true that tuition fees didn’t cause the immediate collapse in the polls; that developed over the summer and autumn of 2010 as Nick Clegg disastrously misplayed the coalition game. It’s quite likely, though unprovable of course, that they played a significant part in *keeping* LD ratings as low as they’ve been ever since, when one might have expected a bit of a bounce back. Certainly I know individuals (not particularly left-wing ones) who say they’ll never vote for the party again because of tuition fees; how common such feelings are, who can say?

  4. Is there a timetable to which David Howarth is working? (I have heard nothing about this since well before Xmas.) The LibDems are surely in danger of being overtaken on the student fees issue. It is prominent among public and political debate but we are hearing very little if anything from the LibDems on this front.

    To what extent will LibDem members be permitted to comment on the report – if and when it is produced – in the further shaping of LibDem policy on the matter?

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