2nd December 2010

Fees debate splits the coalition

Matt Hirschler discusses the implications of the Browne review for the coalition

Last week the Browne report, commissioned by the government, suggested that the cap of £3,290 on tuition fees should be lifted, and a free market of tuition fees should be introduced. Vince Cable, the business secretary, said he agreed with the “general thrust” of the suggestions to improve the financial health of Universities. However, opposition to increased tuition fees was central pledge in the Liberal Democrat’s election campaign, opening up the possibility of a backbench rebellion. As well as prizing open some clear divides, this issue is acting as an interesting insight into the inner workings of an unlikely coalition.

The Coalition Government is currently carrying out wide ranging spending cuts to tackle the budget deficit but there have been suggestions that Liberal Democrats MPs and supporters oppose the severity of the cuts. Recently, the Energy Security, Chris Huhne, said in a newspaper interview that the cuts could be altered “if economic conditions changed”, suggesting he opposed the nature of reduced spending. As a result he was rushed into a TV interview insisting that he “very much” backed the government’s programme.

Higher Education Funding is likely to cause even deeper divides in the government. The Liberal Democrats rely on a large student vote, which they cannot afford to alienate. Vince Cable said that he was still considering a cap of £7,000, but it was not clear weather this would be a ‘soft’ cap, where institutions can exceed the limit but are penalized by the treasury, or a full cap, but insisted that a free market for fees would be “unfair”. This issue could easily cause a large political standoff unlike any in recent British political history.

Coalition politics is a very alien concept to the British political system. Our system delivers all or nothing; if your party forms the government you can expect all the policies you supported to become law, however, if your party becomes the opposition then you have a grim five year experience where nothing you want passes. This is a very poor democratic process, the government needs to be pegged back, and compromises must be enforced over the course of any government’s life.

Britain is now in the unique position of having a relatively weak Coalition government with a strong democratic mandate. The Conservative and Liberal Democrat politicians are representing a far larger proportion of the electorate than any government in recent memory. The last Labour government won 35.2% of the vote in 2005, compared to the combined 59.1% secured by the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats this year.

The question for students is whether coalition government can forge a more moderate proposal for Higher Education Funding than the policy proposals of the Browne Review. There is still some way to go before a final decision is made. A coalition reform of Higher Education funding will be more favourable for students that any ideas proffered purely by the Conservative Party.

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