I believe that tertiary education should be available to everyone in the UK, rich or poor, especially poor, who can benefit from it.
But I have never supported scrapping tuition fees. That would involve using State taxation powers to compel the lower-paid, who are less likely to have benefited from tertiary education, to subsidise the higher-paid who are more likely. I don’t think John Stuart Mill would have approved.
People with degrees get paid more. It is only fair that a person who gets the benefit and is able without hardship to contribute to the cost, should do so.
In view of the huge expansion in tertiary education, I believe scrapping tuition fees is unaffordable. It was unaffordable before the banking crisis. It is even less affordable now that the country is burdened with a huge deficit caused by bailing out the banks.
That is my personal view but current Lib Dem policy, made democratically by vote at Conference, is otherwise. Scrapping tuition fees is party policy.
It is, however, not a fundamental value. Policies can change, values don’t.
So what’s to be done?
I have looked at the Browne Report, which is readily available for download by anyone with internet access. It states that allowing students to defer payment of fees is critical to takeup.
The Browne recommendations allow for this by making nothing payable by students for fees. Nothing is repayable unless they graduate and begin to earn a good income. If anything is repayable, it is related to their ability to pay.
That seems fair to me.
The Browne Report states that making funds available for maintenance by deferred loans is also critical to takeup.
That seems fair to me too. It is better than a grant system based on family income because it frees students from family circumstances.
The Browne recommendations propose the same provision for part-time students for the first time.
That seems fair to me as well. Currently they have to pay up front, which is a hardship.
The Browne Report states that the percentage of young people in tertiary education in the UK has risen from 6% in 1960 to 45% today. This is a huge number of people. The cost has rocketed. I don’t see how free tertiary education can be paid for.
People who want to learn, who want that qualification, will welcome the opportunity offered by the Browne proposals.
In May’s General Election the party campaigned on a policy of scrapping tuition fees but the party did not win a majority. It got only 57 seats. The policy is still party policy, but we cannot implement it.
So where do we go from here?
The fact that some MPs have promised on the record – whether in writing or not does not matter - to support scrapping tuition fees puts them in a dilemma. The promise cannot be unmade. But to vote that way would be futile in the sense that whether they do or not, scrapping tuition fees is not going to happen. The arithmetic of democracy has made sure of that.
I am not convinced that the obligation to keep their personal promises entitles them to give right-wing Tories a precedent for rebelling in future over other issues which may be even more important.
The arithmetic of democracy has given the MPs power but it rules them too.