What about a decent education, Nick?

The deputy PM should stop blubbing over his tuition-fees U-turn and provide universities that are worth the cash.

Tom Bailey

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Topics Politics

Last week, before the annual Lib-Dem conference, the party’s leader, deputy prime minister Nick Clegg, gave a party-political broadcast saying he was sorry for signing a pledge promising that the Lib Dems would vote against any rise in university tuition fees, and then voting for a large hike in fees while in government. He’s not sorry for voting for a rise in the tuition-fees cap from £3,000 to £9,000, however; it’s just that he, well, changed his mind.

Who exactly was Clegg apologising to, though? The students who protested back in London in 2010? Does Clegg really fancy that a great mass of young people – most of whom will now have graduated – are still bitterly hostile to him and are suffering sleepless nights about his ‘betrayal’ for changing his mind on tuition fees? Unfortunately, Clegg seems to have missed the fact that the only people still making noise about this are the usual small band of activists and professional student-union representatives with wanky sounding titles like ‘democracy and communications officer’ – the kind of people that endlessly lobbied him to sign the pledge in the first case.

Professional activists and student-union bureaucrats are living in the shadow of the much-hyped protests of 2010. Since the first few big protests, they have failed to keep students engaged and angry about tuition fees, being unable to stage demonstrations anywhere near the size they were in November 2010. Arguably, many students are still annoyed at the tuition-fee rise, but their supposed rage is hardly because Nick Clegg said he wouldn’t vote for something and then changed his mind.

So what was the point of Clegg’s apology? Why did he even bother taking his walk to Canossa (made worse due to a popular spoof on YouTube, which was released as a single and is now at No65 in the midweek singles chart). The only people who really care about Clegg’s flip-flopping are student-union types and activists, who – while noisy, and often shrill – are fairly small in number and isolated. Clegg’s focus on the outrage of a tiny clique of individuals shows the insulated bubble that Liberal Democrats live in.

The only people who should be feeling sorry (but, please, do not post a public apology on YouTube) are those who campaigned against the rises in tuition fees. Because during all the sound and fury of the protests, these activists missed an important opportunity to make a positive case for what higher education should be about.

The rise in tuition fees was justified by government ministers on the basis that graduates would be able to pay it back when they get good jobs later down the line – an approach which treats university simply as a step on the career ladder. Rather than opposing this pretty dismal view of higher education, anti-tuition fee campaigners completely bought into it, but just felt that the higher price might put people off going to university. The president of the National Union of Students (NUS), Liam Burns, argued that people should go to university to get ‘that bit of paper to get into better jobs with greater earning potential and influence’. Indeed, he even went so far as to say that when it came to degrees, ‘[the NUS wants] as many people to get one as possible, at the expense of quality if necessary’.

Rather than making the case for universities as places of learning for education’s sake, places for pursuing knowledge, campaigners accepted that going to university was about little more than creating some interesting talking points for potential employers interviewing them about their CVs (alongside the idea that universities offer a few years of fun, too). The only problem for these campaigners was that universities were not ‘inclusive’ enough, as poorer students were suffering and being turned off a university education.

But, actually, who is being stopped from going to university? Despite fees now going up to £9,000 per year for new undergraduates, students don’t need to pay back their loans, to cover both the fees and living costs, until they start earning money after they graduate. And even then it’s just nine per cent of their annual income over a threshold of £21,000. So a student earning £25,000 after graduation would have to pay back just £30 a month. Those lucky enough to earn a lot more should find the repayments easy enough. Those earning £60,000 per year, for example, will have to pay back £292.50 per month. Anti-fees campaigners and student-union types love to bang on about how fee increases are ruining their futures and that the poor are being thrown on the scrapheap; but the truth is poor graduates only start paying back their loans when they are rich enough to do so. No one has to pay anything before going to uni.

Sure, the total amount students owe will be a lot more than when fees were £3,000 per year, but if this gives them pause for thought about whether or not they go to university, then so much the better. Many activists complain that higher education is ‘a right, not a privilege’. But, actually, it is a privilege. Not one that should be based on how much money you have – and, due to the structure of the loan system, fees are no barrier for even the poorest to gain admission to university – but on how academically talented you are.

The anti-fees campaigners basically had the same view of higher education as the government: both viewed university and higher education in an instrumental way. Each saw universities as a step towards a future career, but quibbled over how the universities-turned-employee-factories should be funded: by tax or by the students themselves.

Nick Clegg shouldn’t have bothered apologising; it’s not going to win him votes as no one but a few activists care about the pledge he signed. And while public apologies are generally something to be avoided, the campaigners against the tuition fees rise should perhaps apologise for failing to defend higher education properly – that is, as something that allows young people who are so inclined to lose themselves for three years in the pursuit of knowledge.

Tom Bailey is a history undergraduate at University College London and a columnist for spiked. Visit his personal website here. Follow him on Twitter: @tbaileybailey

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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