I took part in a five-party panel at York University the other weekend, organised by the University’s Politics Society, in front of a packed lecture hall with over 200 students. No other panellist or questioner mentioned the subject of tuition fees, believed by some Liberal Democrat activists (and right-wing journalists) to be an issue that hangs like an albatross round Nick Clegg’s neck. The overwhelming impression I came away with, reinforced by informal conversations with several students after the meeting, was not that we face an outraged student body which can never forgive us for the tuition fees ‘betrayal’, as the NUS would like to portray it; it was of a student body which is switched off from party politics, unsure of whether to vote or not, but with some intelligent questions to ask. ‘I wasn’t planning to vote until I came to this’, one student told me afterwards, ‘but maybe now I will.’
Since nobody else did, I addressed the tuition fee issue. I said that we had found it impossible to persuade our Conservative partners in the coalition to pay for this, against the background of a yawning gap between revenue and expenditure in 2010, and had therefore focused on striking a deal that was as progressive in its impact as possible; that the package had ensured that graduates only start to pay back when they are earning good money; that the rise since then in the number of students from disadvantaged backgrounds applying to university has shown that we got that right; and that there was no no way any future government would want to take us back to free fees in the face of other competing demands for government funding. I went on to say that we had worked in government to put money into ‘the other 50%’ – the young people who never go to university; that doubling the number of apprenticeships, paying a Pupil Premium to encourage schools to put more resources into helping those who most need it, and expanding nursery education to give children a better start in life had proved to be more progressive and cost-effective than free fees for the better-off.
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