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.
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.
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.