Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Which way will Huppert Go?

For a time last year, the Conservatives in Cambridge were suffering one of their periodic bouts of collective lunacy, and found themselves without a parliamentary candidate. As a result, I was asked to step in to represent City Conservatives at a debate organised by the National Union of Students on the subject of student finance. I had the good fortune to be well briefed by Nick Hillman, who was working at the time for the Conservative shadow minister responsible for universities, David Willetts, and who went on to become the Conservative parliamentary candidate in Cambridge at the general election.

At the time, the Conservative policy was to wait for the outcome of the Browne report, ruling nothing in or out. Who knows if the party had already resigned themselves to increasing tuition fees - what was clear at the time to anyone listening is that the Conservatives weren't ruling out this eventuality. I argued strongly to Nick Hillman at the time that electorally this was unhelpful - suicidal perhaps a better word in a seat like Cambridge with maybe 10,000 or more student voters on the electoral role. It was however honest - the Conservatives knew they might be in power, and knew that whilst in power, they might reach the conclusion that supporting increases in tuition fees was the right thing to do.

There are actually some really good arguments why universities should be allowed to increase tuition fees - particularly for an absolutely top tier in global terms university like Cambridge University. Higher education is expensive - without additional funding from fees, Cambridge could lose that position, to the whole country's detriment. Without more funding generally, the expansion in higher education would grind to a halt - the budget deficit amplifies this problem, its not the ultimate cause of it - just because something like higher education is a good thing, does not make it sensible for governments to fund it with a blank cheque at no cost to those benefiting. People tend to value things more when they have to pay for them - they will look at the costs of attending university and the benefits to them personally. They may then decide university isn't for them, which may be a much better mechanism for determining how far to expand higher education takeup than some arbitrary target like 50% of school leavers. Students paying more for a course may work harder and try to get more out of it, and demand higher standards from their university - all good things. Finally - is it fair that some people should get a free University education that will benefit them personally to a great extent later. But there is also some very good reasons why high fees might be a bad thing - like if it disproportionately dissauded talented students from poor backgrounds from going to University. I don't know the right answer to the fees question - I just hope that any decision to support unlimited fees is backed by support for students from less well off families, and robust evidence that they won't put off such people to a great extent.

There had been a debate going on last year in the Lib Dems between the realists who at least didn't rule out tuition fees at the present level, and the fantasists who thought fees could just be abolished without consequence - perhaps under the misapprehension that they would never be called on to test such a policy.

At the time of the NUS debate, the fantasists in the Lib Dems were firmly in control. They too were selecting a parliamentary candidate - so a student Lib Dem defended their corner - and told the assembled audience in no uncertain terms that the Lib Dems would abolish tuition fees, and they had a plan for how they would do this. This is pretty much the manifesto that Julian Huppert went to the student population of Cambridge with last May.

The Browne report is now out - and recommending Universities should be able to charge much higher fees. This has put the Lib Dems into a bit of a dilemma - should they support the Coallition they are part of, should they abstain and allow the plans to pass, or vote against, potentially risking the downfall of the whole government.

Some commentators have claimed that this isn't such a big deal politically, and students don't really affect the outcome of elections. That is clearly nonsense in Cambridge - promises on tuition fees before an election are a big deal. By exquisite irony, the election of Cambridge's first Lib Dem MP was certainly on the back of Anne Campbell, our last Labour MP, and her decision to support the introduction of tuition fees only weeks after solemnly promising the student electorate in Cambridge she would oppose them. The Cambridge student vote has still not forgiven Labour. I don't know what the right answer to the tuition fees question is - but I do know that for Julian Huppert abstention would be as bad as supporting tuition fee rises. He made a clear promise to the electorate and was elected on the back of that promise. If the Conservatives had an overall majority in parliament now, I have no doubt Lib Dems like our MP would vote against any planned rises to fees (without any thought to the consequences), and delight in telling Cambridge how opposed they were, and how wicked the Tories are for wanting to raise fees. If he doesn't now actively oppose any planned rises in fees, he will have been elected on a fraudulently false premise. I wonder what will happen...

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