The coalition government have voted to remove the cap on University tuition fees. As I write, students and others are protesting in Westminster, the streets are being torn apart and police are hitting people with batons.
Let’s be clear about why this is happening. The government decided to make huge cuts in public spending to reduce the budget deficit, and furthermore to make these cuts within the lifetime of the parliament. From that decision extends an inexorable logic. What would you cut? Defence? Police? Health provision? Or Universities which, in the popular imagination, churn out graduates who walk into well paid jobs?
The Comprehensive Spending Review included a 79% cut in the teaching grant to universities. Again, the logic is unavoidable: universities cannot teach if to do so costs them losses of thousands of pounds per student per year. Either funding must be found from elsewhere, or dozens of the more than 130 universities in the country must close.
If I had my way – I don’t and I never will – we’d be saying goodbye to Trident, taxing the corporations, bankers and anyone else earning over 10 times the minimum wage until their pips squeak, and re-establishing fully-funded education for all. The benefits are unarguable, for graduates and for the country. Why not recoup the cost of higher education from those who have benefitted so fully from free degrees (not to say low taxes, booming property, free universal healthcare). In short, raise taxes for every generation from the post-war baby-boomers up to and including my own. We had it all given to us on a plate, why not make us give some of it back?
But the cuts have been made. Fees are the only game in town. The logic, crushing and unavoidable, is clear. The effects will be felt over a generation. Browne has a strong progressive safety net. Poor students will not repay fees, reasonably well-off graduates will. Nonetheless, it’s impossible to imagine that the poorest in society – those who do relatively better through attending university than the middle-class entitled, by the way – will not turn away from education in their thousands. Read Sickmouthy’s recent post to understand how universities have become engines for social mobility over the last decades.
The rest is politics, and what’s left is the shredded corpse of the Liberal Democrats. Are they cheats, or liars? Did they make pledges they had no intention of keeping? Or did they fail to stand up to their Conservative overlords and choose to break their promises and betray their beliefs instead? Perhaps this is coalition politics. Perhaps we would have done the same thing, with heavy hearts and twitching sphincters.
What’s clear is that come the next election their pledges will be worthless and their promises will fall on deaf ears. All that remains for them is to make the most of their time in front of the cameras, squirming as they try to justify policies they used to denounce. They won’t be around for much longer and in the meantime the Conservatives have a whole load more shit for them to carry.