Thursday, 4 November 2010


You know, if the NUS pledge was that much of a priority for you, the time to mobilise yourselves, campaign and demonstrate was six months ago when the programme for government was being drawn up. As I recall, you were all more interested in dressing in purple and shouting for fair votes.

Right now, the Lib Dems are in no position to vote against the government on this issue. Would that they were. The coalition agreement and ensuing programme for government are effectively a contract, and supercede our own policies and promises because to break the agreement is to bring down the government and return to square one at worst, or at best a license for the tories to vote against any lib dem measures they don't like the look of, which makes the whole agreement a farce. It was a tough decision to enter into coalition, but I still believe, as do the majority of party members, that it was the right one. The ONLY alternative was a minority tory government. If we had said no, the country would have had six months of sweeties and inducements, followed by an election last week where Cameron got himself a tidy majority. This week, you would be staring down an emergency budget that would make the measures we've got, however harsh they are, look like manna from heaven. And if our MPs vote against any bill on top-up fees, that's what we'll face over the following six months. Rock and a hard place.

In the coalition agreement, the only concession regarding tuition fees was that Lib Dem MPs may abstain if they couldn't accept the recommendations of the Browne report. We knew at the time that abstaining on any vote won't stop it from going through - the opposition MPs total 279. The tories have 304. THIS HAS BEEN ON THE CARDS FOR MONTHS. Under the harrowing circumstances, the Lib Dems have been instrumental in thrashing out an arrangement that will be as fair as possible. There is no sense in which the poorest students will be stopped from attending university, and in fact the salary level at which graduates will be asked to start paying back student loans will be raised. Jo Swinson has written an excellent defence of our position and summary of the proposals. As she says: We could have left it to the Conservatives to present plans for unlimited fees, with no regard for a progressive repayment system, and no requirements for top universities to do better on access for poorer students. Instead, we got involved to make a Liberal Democrat difference, and create a fairer system.

You know something else? If self-interest wasn't the only guiding concern of students, if the critical liberal-humanist tendencies of the academic elite were really still alive and well, this would not be the top priority. The worst iniquities wrought by this government are those which affect the poorest and the disabled - in the changes to housing benefit and time-limiting Employment and Support Allowance. Visit those links and decide whether it's more important, as horrible as it is, that you don't swallow the cost of a degree rising from that of a Polo to that of a Porsche; or whether it's more worth your energy and your anger campaigning for those who will have nowhere to live or not enough to eat. I know which is my major concern.