Letter to the Stevenage Advertiser from Councillor Robin Parker on student tuition fees.

Dear Sir,

As a local borough and county councillor, I have no power whatsoever over student tuition fees, but I have been asked my views on the issue by local residents. Here is my full answer.

Like many people, I was appalled when in 1998 the last Labour government introduced £1,000 a year university student tuition fees, and student loans, without it having been in their manifesto in 1997. Prior to this, the system relied on parents to pay for students’ living expenses and, apart from cases where parental income was very high, tuition fees were paid by the government.

I was even more appalled when, in 2004, the last Labour government pushed through top up fees, allowing fees to rise to £3000 a year (which have now risen with inflation to £3290 a year) even though the 2001 Labour general election manifesto stated “…..we will not introduce top up fees…..” Labour forced this through the Commons with a majority of just 5, even though their paper majority was 167, and 90 of their own side refused to support their own government (71 against and 19 abstentions).

Labour had the (possibly) laudable aim of increasing the number of students who attended university, but had absolutely no plan about how to pay for the consequences. Even when tax revenues were buoyant, Labour was borrowing up to £150 billion per year to pay for other Labour spending.

In November 2009, Labour commissioned the Browne Review into university fees and funding – somewhat belatedly to tackle their problem over this issue – but conveniently for them they had left office by the time it reported and so they left the present coalition government to sort out the university funding mess as well as Labour’s huge extra borrowing each year.

The Liberal Democrats policy is, and has been for some years, to phase out tuition fees over a six year period and, if the Liberal Democrats had won the general election, this is what we would have done. Since we came third in the general election, it is obvious that the Liberal Democrats cannot get their own way on each issue, although we have scored a remarkable number of Liberal Democrat ideas and policies in the coalition agreement.

The coalition government obviously has some different priorities to those which the Liberal Democrats alone would have and, as a result, the phasing out of tuition fees was not possible at present (unless the House of Lords think otherwise!) Reducing Labour’s borrowing was, in the coalition’s view, a greater priority. So, the coalition government decided to adopt the recommendations of Labour’s Browne’s Review (as Labour would have done had they still been in office) and remove the £3290 cap on tuition fees. The Conservatives were presumably happy with this as well (since all but eight Conservative MPs voted for it in the Commons last week and forced it through).

Most students will now pay around £6000 a year, instead of £3290 a year, so over a typical three year course, the extra cost will be total of 3 times £2710 = £8130. Many Liberal Democrats (including me) do not agree with this extra cost and still wish to see tuition fees phased out. That is why 21 Liberal Democrat MPs voted against the increase and therefore against the coalition (and that is what I would have done, if I had been a Liberal Democrat MP). Also, 8 Liberal Democrat MPs abstained.

It is a shame that many more people did not vote Liberal Democrat in the general election because, if they had, we could have had more Liberal Democrat policies in the coalition and we could have stopped the removal of the cap in tuition fees.

I do hope that the wealth of misinformation on the subject now circulating – much of it from the Labour party – does not dissuade potential students from going to university. I also hope this letter sets the record straight and makes it clear that the current hysteria in wholly blaming the Liberal Democrats for the increase in tuition fees is, to say the least, somewhat misplaced!

Yours sincerely

Robin Parker

Liberal Democrat borough councillor for Manor and county councillor for Chells.