The UK Liberal Democrats and higher education

Well, now that the pundits are saying that British Liberal Democrat leader, Nick Clegg, was the outright winner in the television debate between the three party leaders, it may be time to have a look at what the Lib Dems are proposing for higher education in their manifesto. Here is the relevant extract, in full:

• Scrap unfair university tuition fees for all students taking their first degree, including those studying part-time, saving them over £10,000 each. We have a financially responsible plan to phase fees out over six years, so that the change is affordable even in these difficult economic times, and without cutting university income. We will immediately scrap fees for final year students.
• Reform current bursary schemes to create a National Bursary Scheme for students, so that each university gets a bursary budget suited to the needs of its students. These bursaries would be awarded both on the basis of studying strategic subjects (such as sciences and mathematics) and financial hardship.
• Replace wasteful quangos (the Skills Funding Agency and the Higher Education Funding Council for England) with a single Council for Adult Skills and Higher Education.
• Scrap the arbitrary target of 50 per cent of young people attending university, focussing effort instead on a balance of college education, vocational training and apprenticeships.
• Start discussions with universities and schools about the design of a trial scheme whereby the best students from the lowest achieving schools are guaranteed a place in Higher Education.

Note the promise to abolish tuition fees, alongside the commitment to do so ‘without cutting university income’. Whatever views anyone might have on the acceptability of fees, the idea that they can be scrapped without reducing funding for the higher education institutions is almost certainly unrealistic – as the Irish experience has shown. A similar commitment was given in Ireland in 1995 and was manifestly not kept. It is probably a promise that is simply unaffordable.

Note also the suggestion that higher education participation targets are not helpful, and that some who are now being admitted to universities might have better vocational training elsewhere. Others are suggesting something similar, but whether it is really possible (or desirable) to reverse the massification of higher education may be questioned.

Overall, the chances are that the Lib Dems will have a major influence on the formation of the next British government, and so their election literature and their campaign are worth watching.

Explore posts in the same categories: higher education, politics

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