Conservative Diary

« Where have all the Obamacons gone? | Main | Miliband taunts Lib Dems over tuition fees pledge at PMQs as Cameron retorts: "We know what he's against... what on earth is he for?" »

Will the Government's plan to buy off the Liberal Democrat student finance rebels work?

By Paul Goodman

Screen shot 2010-11-03 at 07.54.50Both Government partners have been embarrassed by elements of the Coalition Agreement - because these meant reneging on manifesto commitments - but the Conservatives haven't been humiliated by any of them.  That's to say, Conservative MPs weren't photographed brandishing placards bearing promises which they've now broken.  The same can't be said for their Liberal Democrat counterparts, who gave an unambiguous pledge not vote for higher tuition fees (and were snapped signing promises not to do so - see above) and now face having to do the opposite, as part of the Government's hybrid student finance scheme.

As I've noted before, some Liberal Democrat MPs are under particular pressure.  They sit for constituencies with lots of students in them (part of the reason why the pledge was made in the first place).  I've previously cited the MPs for Cambridge, Bristol West and Leeds North West (Julian Huppert, Stephen Williams and Greg Mulholland).  This morning's Guardian quotes the MP for Cardiff Central (Jenny Willott) as part of a bigger story about today's Government announcement on the scheme.  A tuition fee cap was certain from the first to be slapped on Lord Browne's scheme, in order to try to buy off the rebels, and the Guardian offers details.

The paper reports that -

"David Willetts, the universities minister, will introduce a low threshold of £6,000 and a high threshold of £9,000. Universities which charge beyond £6,000 will be required to demonstrate they are doing all they can to attract students from poorer backgrounds with either outreach programmes to schools in disadvantaged communities and/or schools in areas where there has traditionally been a low number going to university through targeted scholarships.

If a university charging £9,000 is not able to demonstrate to the Office of Fair Access it is making sufficient progress, it will be asked to return some of the funds raised from the increased fees and that pot of money will be channelled to institutions or schemes that are successfully increasing access to university...But universities are likely to be pleased after lobbying government for a fee of at least £9,000, saying that is the cost of educating students..."

Let's wait to see the announcement.  It clearly won't be enough to satisfy all the rebels (who also include the Labour-leaning former leaders, Menzies Campbell and Charles Kennedy), so it's not yet clear whether the Government Whips face a containable revolt or a possible defeat.  The Guardian also notes that "it is unclear exactly how this [the increased access for poorer students plan] will work and universities and Tory MPs have warned they are uncomfortable with the new conditionality on universities, regarding it to be social engineering."  They're right.  The just way of increasing University access for disadvantaged pupils is to improve schools, not bar students.

They may also dislike the scheme's non-tuition fee element - what the Institute for Fiscal Studies has described as its "graduate tax" component, and I believe that the IFS is right on this point.  This part of the plan is another source of difficulty and, as the Guardian notes, "there have been disagreements inside government over a Vince Cable proposal to fine well-off students who are able to repay their debts most quickly".  Lord Browne's scheme seemed to be a self-contained whole, crafted to allow Universities to raise the money they need.  If they face both a cap and cash grab by the Office of Fair Access, it's far from certain that his intention will be realised.

Most government plans are the product of trade-offs between different interests.  This one is no different and is, furthermore, the result of haggling between two political parties.  No-one would design it from scratch.  Bits of it are good (the reality-acknowledging tuition fee rise, although it isn't clear whether the cap will allow the Universities to get the money they require).  Parts of it are bad (the access proposal).  As a whole, it's incoherent.  However, it's part of the price of Coalition Government, and in my view this is one worth paying.

I apologise to John Rentoul, the Independent's independent-minded political commentator, if the headline above this piece is one of his famous "Questions to which the answer is no."  But as I write, it isn't clear what will happen when Liberal Democrat MPs, and maybe others, come to vote on the plan in the Commons.


You must be logged in using Intense Debate, Wordpress, Twitter or Facebook to comment.