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.