Behind the Smokescreen on Student Fees
This guest post by the ever excellent Sarah Morrison first appeared at http://srmorrison.wordpress.com/
Nick Clegg told Britain that he wanted a “clean, open, plural politics that…you can put your faith in,” when he spoke at his first press conference at Number 10. While the footage streamed onto our screens might not have been reminiscent of Hollywood – beeping car horns could be faintly heard in the background as Clegg uttered his last words – it signalled the end of what for many was an increasingly Americanised General Election, where the image of the candidates, rather than their platform, reigned supreme. As the three main parties were differentiated by their decision to ‘Spend’ or ‘Cut’ and the media competed in their bid to ‘De-posh Dave’, it seemed odd to witness the ease at which central issues in this time of ‘transparency’ could be so easily obscured.
According to the Higher Education Statistics Agency, there were more than 2.3 million students in UK Higher Education Institutions in 2008/09, and this figure is expected to rise. With higher education generating £54 billion in economic activity in 2009, it might have come as a surprise to those working in the sector that its future played so small a role in an election that hailed economic restoration. Except no one was surprised. In November 2009, under the direction of Lord Mandelson, a so-called Independent Review of Higher Education Funding and Student Financing was launched. Tasked with making recommendations to the government on the future of paying for higher education, the mission was clear: Remain silent until the General Election is over.
From its very conception, those involved in the sector expressed concern that the Review would allow candidates to conceal their policies on tuition fees and prevent higher education from becoming a main issue in the electoral agenda. Professor Les Ebdon, Chair of the UK university think-tank Million+, concluded that: “In particular, the Labour and Conservative Parties need to say where they stand before voters go to the polls” – surprisingly, they did not. The Conservatives promised to “work to improve the way that universities are funded” in their manifesto, while Labour explicitly stated that because “the review of higher education funding chaired by Lord Browne will report later this year”, their aim, until then, was to ensure “that universities and colleges have a secure, long-term funding base that protects world-class standards in teaching and research.” Hardly the detailed stance that Professor Ebdon was calling for now, was it?
Just as the publication of the Review was cleverly designed to fall months after the General Election, the make-up of the seven-strong panel has called into question the very ‘independent’ nature that the Review is named to ascertain (Note – when the word ‘Independent’ has to be included in the official name of a Review – questions should immediately be raised). Led by former CEO of British Petroleum, Lord Browne, the fondly called Browne Review has a panel that the President-elect of the National Union of Students (NUS), Aaron Porter, called ‘skewed’. No student representatives or higher education employers make up the team, but two Vice-Chancellors of UK Universities are represented, as well as the CEO of Standard Chartered Bank and a board member for ING Direct. While the Review has taken evidence from more than 160 different higher education organisations – ranging from the NUS to the Church of England – and promises to be a collaborative process with special emphasis on an Advisory Forum, cracks have already appeared in the panel’s claims for non-preferential treatment.
When the Oxford University Student Union (OUSU) heard that the Russell Group, which represents 20 leading UK universities with a combined economic output of £22.3 billion per year – roughly equivalent to 40 percent of the total output of the sector – had been allowed by the Review to withhold their evidence, there was uproar. While all other proposals had been public, it seemed that the panel had decided to offer the collection of elite universities special treatment. It took a Freedom of Information Request by the OUSU (which was denied) and a strong campaign by both the NUS and the Aldwych Group – which represents all the unions of the Russell Group universities – to get the evidence published three months after the original deadline was set. For Jonny Medland, Vice President for Academic Affairs and Access at OUSU, the act constituted ‘the definition of collaboration.’ When asked about the Review, he said: “Our fears that it’s little more than a smokescreen for raising fees have been confirmed.”
Yet behind this veil of uncertainty, one voice rang out clear. During a Campaign visit to Cambridge, Nick Clegg defined the Liberal Democrats as the party of exception. He said: “Labour and the Conservatives have been trying to keep tuition fees out of this election campaign…The Liberal Democrats are different. Not only will we oppose any raising of the cap, we will scrap tuition fees for good.” In fact, all 57 Liberal Democrat MPs signed the NUS Vote for Students pledge to “vote against any increase in fees in the next parliament and to pressure the government to introduce a fairer alternative.” Suddenly, it seemed clear – action, and not rhetoric, is what the Liberal Democrats agreed to endorse. Yet as details of the coalition agreement were announced, both parties promised to carefully consider the forthcoming conclusions of Lord Browne’s review, adding one additional clause. If the government’s response to the Review is one the Liberal Democrats “cannot accept”, then “arrangements will be made to enable Liberal Democrat MPs to abstain in any vote”. Suddenly the man who asked Cambridge students to “use your vote to block those unfair tuition fees” is choosing to forgo his own.
As expected by many, the suggestions put forward to the Review by the Russell Group suggest: “Graduate contributions should be increased” in an “incremental approach to removing the fee cap”. In other words, under their proposal, Britain will experience a marketisation of the higher education system where top institutions can charge as much as they deem fit. Whatever one’s opinions on the future of tuition fees, what remains clear is this: If Lord Browne recommends raising or removing the cap on fees – which is highly likely at this point in time – the Conservatives could pass the plans while the Liberal Democrats grapple with their inner turmoil in silence. Over 15,000 Facebook users have already predicted this situation and have signed up to a group online that declares this behaviour unacceptable. Emmanuel Akpan-Inwang, Chair of the Aldwych Group and Education and Welfare Officer at LSE’s student union, said he was ‘gobsmacked’ that higher education had become such a ‘political football.’ Somehow, ‘clean’ and ‘open’ were not words he used in his assessment of the situation.
As we look back on this election campaign and contemplate the manner in which a controversial issue has systematically been removed from the central agenda, how a review was established that answered only to itself, and how one of our leading political parties can break a pledge so crucial to their campaign, our original analysis appears a little short-sighted. Zooming back now into the Downing Street Gardens, where David Cameron and Nick Clegg stand proud, their ability to secure starring roles in Hollywood seems not so far off at all.
A version of this post appeared at http://srmorrison.wordpress.com/