Tuition row: The beginning of the end for the coalition?

December 8, 2010


– Mark Kobayashi-Hillary is the author of several books, including ‘Who Moved my Job?’ and ‘Global Services: Moving to a Level Playing Field’. The opinions expressed are his own. –

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg is on a mission to shore up support within his own party for the tripling of university tuition fees. The Liberal Democrats campaigned with a manifesto pledge claiming they would axe fees if they ever got into power. They got the power, but only via a coalition with the Conservative party, and though they claim that some Lib Dem pledges survived the coalition talks, the policy on tuition fees actually went the other way.

MPs will vote on the tuition fees policy tomorrow. Clegg has stated that all his ministers will support the government line, but though the ministers have been whipped into line, it looks like a large number of Lib Dem backbenchers are unhappy with their new reputation as the ‘Fib Dems’. Potentially a large number of them will vote against their own policy or abstain from voting altogether.

This rebellion over a key piece of legislation could be the beginning of the end for the coalition. A coalition government requires compromise, some favoured policies will be axed so that others survive and the result is a curious blend of the pledges made by two parties – often neither party will be entirely happy with their joint proposals.

But if the Lib Dems rebel on tuition fees now then one might expect the Conservatives to rebel over the tidbits thrown to their coalition partner, such as voting reform. If there is no agreement and the constituent parties rebel against the ideas their partner brought to the table then we don’t really have a coalition – just two warring parties. And if this forces an early election then Nick Clegg will see his party reduced to a tiny rump of MPs aimlessly wandering the backbenches, because even their own supporters have lost faith.

Clegg knows this, so he clings on to the lifeline of making the coalition work even though it positions him and his party as the opposite of what they campaigned for. Meanwhile he has to suffer the indignity of watching as the general population circulate YouTube videos of him promising to scrap tuition fees.

The Lib Dem leadership argues that tuition fees are not all that bad, because they are not charged up front. Students only need to start repaying once they are in work and earning a good salary. It’s true that this could be argued as a better system than forcing parents to open an education fund the moment their child is born – rather like the USA. But is not bad good enough?

Beyond the fog of party politics, broken promises, and coalition deals in dark rooms there is the bigger picture. What kind of nation does the UK want to be? How do we reposition ourselves in a post-banking-boom world where the lustre of Empire, Commonwealth, and traditional British influence has very little meaning any longer?

Due to their huge populations, China and India alone generate around nine million university graduates every year. The UK cannot blunder through this century continuing to think that we have a monopoly on banking, advanced engineering, and innovation while these far-flung nations all remain focused on stitching together our clothes and testing our software. It doesn’t work like that any more. The Brazilians have some of the most innovative banking technology in the world, the Indians now lead the world in hi-tech services and software development, and the Chinese are moving into every area where their sheer size and scale allows.

Prime Minister David Cameron recently claimed that the bailout of Ireland made clear commercial sense because the UK exports more to Ireland than to Brazil, Russia, India, and China combined. He made the point as a defence of the cash British taxpayers are handing over to support the Irish banking system. To me it sounded like an admission of failure – that the UK is not engaging in any depth with the new global superpowers. I asked the Cabinet Office and Number 10 to verify the export numbers used by the Prime Minister, but nobody got back to me.

The backdrop to the parliamentary vote tomorrow will be national civil unrest. London students are already circulating their ‘London Calling’ protest details on Facebook and other social networks. It’s going to be noisy on the streets as the students make their voice heard. But remember this, the students are largely protesting about the duplicity of the Lib Dem leadership, yet the real fight is how to make our education system fit for purpose in the twenty-first century – is anyone out there thinking of the long-term or are they all fixated on tuition fees alone? As Joe Strummer once said ‘London is drowning, and I live by the river.’

One comment

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As yet I haven’t heard any references as to how the graduates are going to manage once they have left uni, apart from not having to repay the student loans until they are earning £21k. This is all well & good apart from the fact that all students graduating from uni will find it virtually impossible to get onto the property ladder. My son is at Med school at the moment and under the present system will still leave with a debt of approx £50k. Under the new system Medical graduates will have a debt of approx £70k. How many financial institutions will want to provide these graduates with a mortgage when they are already £50k-£70k in debt?

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