PODCAST – That tuition fees promise: what new research shows about the lessons to learn

Nick Clegg speaking to camera and apolosing for tuition fees

There was a weird role reversal at the heart of the Liberal Democrat decisions over tuition fees in 2010, as Chris Butler’s academic research reveals. So I invited him on Never Mind The Bar Charts to discuss what he has found, the lessons for the Liberal Democrats and the implications more generally about what makes for successful political parties.

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8 responses to “PODCAST – That tuition fees promise: what new research shows about the lessons to learn”

  1. Part of the problem was that the change of policy was only half sold. The fact that without tuition fees there would be a cap on student numbers and rationing was rarely mentioned. Also that so long as less well off students were being helped, students from households that had paid for private education were still getting a great deal from the State. Like the Local Income Tax debate in 2005 the Lib Dems lost the argument by not being prepared properly for a defence of their position.

  2. I found the podcast very helpful and it confirmed some of my thoughts on where we went wrong with Coalition. I hadn’t realised our popularity slumped as soon as we went into Coalition with the Tories, so we should have been even more aware of public opinion rather than less. It’s very helpful that our President sees the problems so hopefully it won’t happen again under his watch.

  3. Thanks. I found that a great analysis.

    I thought that the really key point came at the end (and after 10 years). It chimes with insight from introspection and my own response. University graduates are more likely to wish for the sort of access they had themselves. That was exactly my own response.

    The response is quite innate. Humans – like other primates – choose fairness over strictly logical self-interest. In short, in studies, even a monkey will reject a banana that has been distributed unfairly.

    Benefitting from no fees (and indeed a grant for living expenses) helped me through courses that I might not otherwise have taken. I like to think this benefitted society as a whole in the end.

    The point – I think – is that people view it as generationally unfair to impose costs to access a system that was previously free and is life-changing and positive for society. That is an intrinsic unfairness and quite independent of the relative merits of whatever the systems are.

  4. Second minor point if I may – it helpfully cleared one thing up. I had not been aware of this in the manifesto myself (as a potential voter not a member) and had been wondering what I had missed and how. It turns out that I had not really missed anything.

    The area could do with another Thesis on the response – how not to communicate a very difficult situation.

  5. Sorry – even a third comment now.

    There was another extremely notable counter-example from the time. David Cameron had at the top of the manifesto a commitment to fully fund the NHS and then leave it alone with no more top-down reforms. Or words to that effect. It was right at the top of the agenda before the election.

    A year or two later, there was the Lansley act, plus cuts in real terms. The biggest most ideological top-down reform in NHS history. And Cameron was returned.

    How did Cameron get away with such a stunning reversal (to use a polite word) ?

    • Hi Joseph,

      Thanks very much for listening. The Lansley NHS reforms are another really interesting case. In one respect the Conservatives didn’t get away with it – prior to the 2010 election they were as trusted on the NHS as the Labour party (for the first time in decades), but their reputation for competence on healthcare plummeted during the passing of the reforms. Why they survived electorally compared to the Lib Dems is probably because their reputation on healthcare was not one of the main reasons for their success in 2010 + voters had a clear idea of what the party stood for. The difference compared to the Lib Dems is not necessarily that tuition fees was the central reason why people voted Lib Dem in 2010, just that it was a policy strongly associated with the party so when the Lib Dems U-turned voters had less of an idea of what they stood for. Blair also U-turned on top-up fees but got away with it electorally as well (apart from the loss of several university constituencies to the Lib Dems in 2005). The problem to my mind is that tuition fees were so large a part of the party’s brand.

      On your second question about successful U-turns, the closest example that comes to mind is New Labor’s increase in NI contributions to fund the NHS in 2002. New Labour were extremely worried about the politics of tax rises. They saw the NI rise as necessary as voters’ perceptions of NHS outcomes were not improving quickly enough. They meticulously researched how to frame the tax rise in a way that voters would accept. Even on the day they remained incredibly nervous – yet it barely hit them at all, mainly because they had done their homework. Indeed, the policy change is little remembered and not much written about because it proceeded so well, yet it’s a very good example of a government successfully enacting a risky policy change.

      • Many thanks for taking the trouble to reply.

        Thanks. This makes sense. I guess that the underlying difference with the context with New Labour is also that they had the freedom to phrase the policy as they really wanted, when they wanted as they had a huge majority with sole control. In some respects, it is another aspect of why small partners come off badly in Coalition.

        The comment about the Tories makes sense too – as you said tax cuts and less public service would be much more ‘priced in’ to the Tory vote already.

  6. A very good review of the tuition fee issue from a Lib Dem point of view.

    Abolishing tuition fees was a populist position whilst the senior party leadership recognised that fees were actually a justifiable graduate tax and abolishing fees would mainly benefit graduate higher earners and have to be paid for through the income tax of average earners. However, the NUS highjacked the issue in advance of the election by (wrongly) demanding pledges to abolish fees and whilst Nick Clegg held out a long time, in the end he succombed and signed as well.

    In reality though, as Mark Pack pointed out the polls showed that Lib Dem support slumped as a result of going into coalition with the Conservatives. It turned out that Lib Dem voters were more anti Conservative than they were pro Lib Dem. Our local party immediately lost many members who could not support a party that was in coalition with the Conservatives. Lib Dems are tribal after all – but in the sense of being anti Conservative.

    So whatever policy was followed on tuition fees, Lib Dems would have been decimated at the election following the coalition. George Osborne recognised that as the coalition agreement was being signed and said so to colleagues at the time, saying that they had just destroyed the Lib Dem party.

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