Posted tagged ‘Nick Clegg’

Taking the pledge

February 22, 2011

In the run-up to the 2010 general election in the United Kingdom, the National Union of Students (NUS) persuaded a number of parliamentary candidates to sign their ‘vote for students’ pledge, which contained the following commitment:

‘I pledge to vote against any increase in fees in the next parliament and to pressure the government to introduce a fairer alternative.’

Amongst those who signed were, famously, all Liberal Democrat MPs, including their leader Nick Clegg. As we know, Clegg subsequently led his party into a coalition government with the Conservatives, and this government adopted the modified proposals put forward by the Browne review and approved a significant increase in tuition fees, up to a maximum of £9,000. Clegg has since distanced himself from the pledge he had signed, and has indicated repeatedly that he now regretted signing it. In the meantime students have in their anti-fees protests targeted Clegg in particular, and it is expected that by the timne of the next election concerted attempts will be made to ensure he does not get re-elected. More generally his popularity has plummeted, and mostly this is put down to the impact of the pledge and his breaking of it.

And now it seems that the same story may be about to be played out on the other side of the Irish Sea.  Here the Union of Students in Ireland has also produced a pledge. Exactly what its wording is has, curiously, not been publicly disclosed by USI, though it is paraphrased or summarised on its website as a promise ‘not to re-introduce third level fees, to protect students supports and to tackle the graduate emigration crisis.’

Yesterday Ruairi Quinn, Labour Party education spokesperson, publicly signed this pledge. Was that a wise decision? Ruairi Quinn is an intelligent and innovative thinker, and is genuinely committed to education. He is also known to be very proud of the Labour Party’s role in abolishing tuition fees in the 1990s. However, like Nick Clegg he may find circumstances will not be ideal for this commitment, as university funding collapses further and financial pressures mount. Even before signing the pledge, he had already hinted publicly that it may not be possible to avoid student contributions.

Following the general election and the formation of a government, there will certainly be detailed discussions about higher education funding. The universities will certainly make it clear that they are facing a financial catastrophe; and government officials will make it clear that there is no more public money. There is a very strong and honorable case for free higher education, but we are at a point where that no longer looks affordable unless we accept a cut price version as acceptable. And so the political risks to those who have signed pledges will be immense, and like Nick Clegg they may find that it will come back to haunt them.

I cannot help feeling that Ruairi Quinn is taking a big, big gamble. And I am not sure why.

The UK Liberal Democrats and higher education

April 17, 2010

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.