I am a bit more of a fan of the coalition than my colleague Steve Tierney, overall I think the agreement is pretty decent, yes the Euroscpeticism is toned down, but it is still there and, especially, we sit in a position where, despite the most significant political change of our time, the Conservatives remain committed to not joining the Euro, the fact that we have taken the Lib Dems along with us for the life time of this Parliament has to be a good thing. My main reason for caution remains a lack of trust of the Lib Dems. I do think Nick Clegg is one of the good guys, but behind him there is almost certainly a whole mass of people who sit, knives at the ready, all set to do some evil deed as soon as they see an opportunity for political advantage. That’s what Lib Dems do; Menzies Campbell was one of the good guys and look what they did to him.
One of the things I hoped was that the few sensible aspects of the Lib Dems manifesto would be kept. Of course, there is a whole mass of stuff that was there for opportunism and, of course that could never have been kept in the coalition Government. The ludicrous amnesty for illegal immigrants was a great example. The reason that policy was there was because both the Conservatives and Labour Party had adopted reasonably strong stances on immigration and so it would have been tough to squeeze any more votes out if they had taken a similarly strong position, so they target the voters that are disappointed with strong immigration policies. It wasn’t about right or wrong (which is why the policy was eaten alive during the TV debates), it was about vote hunting. So, of course, that policy had to go when it came to a coalition.
This bit is where I upset many in my own party. One of the areas I agreed with the Lib Dems (it really hurts saying that!!) was on tuition fees. One of the questions I often ask is “What is the purpose of education?” For a young person it is surely about giving them the best possible start in life? Can someone please tell me how saddling someone with a £20k plus debt contributes to that? Sending a message to a 21 year old that significant debt is OK is not a positive way to move society forwards either. We have too much debt, we need to be encouraging people to live within their means, but instead we have a policy that creates the inherent impression that debt is the way to go.
However, where we seem to be headed is to increase tuition fees. To saddle students with even more debt, to strengthen the message that debt is OK. I was one of only a few Conservative candidates at the General election to sign the NUS’ pledge to vote against any increase in tuition fees. I meant it.
One of the reasons people say that tuition fees are OK is because Degrees increase their earning potential. Except, that is not true for every Degree course, but also every party wants to increase the number of students going to University. If that happens, the advantages gained from getting a Degree are lessened and therefore the additional benefits will be reduced.
But there is, to me, a far more fundamental reason why there needs to be a great deal more caution about tuition fees, and especially about increasing them. One of the things we quite rightly need to do is increase the number of children from poorer backgrounds that go to University. One of the most telling facts about the failure of the Blair/Brown Labour Government was that in the last year for which figures were collected, only 45 children who received Free School Meals went to Oxbridge - these are amongst the Universities that are driving the campaign to increase tuition fees. Now some of those children are likely to get support and won’t have to pay fees - but just above that level is another bunch, who also likely to have parents who never had the chance to go to University - but who also don’t have the money to help their kids. They will also be families that are used to struggling and have never received state support.
Now try and put yourself in the mind of one of the children from those families. Their perception of £20k is significantly different from a family where they are used to a higher income and a higher standard of living, their perception will be about how tough it will be to pay off a debt like that given that they have had parents who are struggling day in day out to keep their heads above water. The more you increase tuition fees, the worse that gap in perception is likely to be, it will create a real mental barrier that will prevent children from low to middle incomes taking up university places.
Here’s where my argument falls down. How do we provide the necessary funding? I haven’t got a clue. But there are supposed to be people with bigger brains then mine (yes even mine J) looking at this stuff. I am sure if someone gave out the instruction that increasing tuition fees isn’t the answer some imaginative ideas would emerge.