Alex Massie

The Tuition Fees Stramash and Why Nick Clegg is Like George HW Bush

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The absurdity and knavery of modern politics has been on full display during the "debate" about university tuition fees. So much so, in fact, that almost no-one emerges from the process with their reputations enhanced. As is customary in such entertainments it helps that there is no issue of principle involved. Hopi Sen put it well the other day:

The Prime Minister wishes his government to introduce a policy which is a major extension of a policy he voted against in opposition.

The Deputy Prime Minister would like to vote for the government’s proposals, but is considering abstaining because he promised to vote against them.

The opposition are opposing what the government proposes, because the government proposes going further than the opposition proposed when they were the government, when the then opposition opposed what the then government proposed.

All clear?

Adam Smith Institute

Poor old Nick Clegg. The pledge to vote against any increase in tuition fees was a foolish stunt that could not survive government but that was made - as everyone knows - when the Liberal Democrats were so far removed from power they might as well have promised free ponies and candyfloss to every child in the country. Of course, that was what they promised. All of a sudden, however, the press prefers to ignore this obvious truth since whacking the Lib Dems is much more enjoyable. Part of this is a question of payback for Clegg's holier-than-thou attitude during the election. But can we expect comparable outrage when the Lib Dems quietly abandon one of their good (or better) policies. Of course not.

Meanwhile, the NUS gets a free ride for its own proposals which would have reduced assistance to poorer would-be students and it's not quite clear what the value of these protests is since all (major) parties agree that students should pay more for their education. Everything else is haggling over the price and the technicalities of credit.

By most international standards, Britain's elite universities are pretty good. They need to be, of course, not simply because excellence is a Good Thing but because the stiffest competition - in America and perhaps elsewhere in the future - is also the primary rival. For that we may thank the English language, who gives more than she takes but still takes something from time to time.

And by that standard British universities are laughably under-priced. Not only that, they will remain so thanks to the artificial cap placed on student fees by this government. £9,000 a year for Oxford or Imperial, UCL or Cambridge? That's a bargain, well below market price. Tuition fees at Princeton this year, for comparison's sake, are $36,640 or roughly £23,000. The total cost of a year in New Jersey? $52,180. A steep price, you may feel, to be sequestered close to members of the Whig & Cliosophic society and you'd be right. Nevertheless, there's no shortage of applicants. (Financial aid helps, of course, but is not the only consideration.)

Or, to take another example, fees at the best public universities in the United States are broadly comparable to the coalition's proposals for the UK. UC Berkeley, for instance, costs almost £8000 this year while the University of Michigan's fees are set at a similar rate. (These figures are for in-state students; coming from out-of-state will cost you much more.)  Berkeley boasts that 33% of its undergraduates are eligible for Pell Grants - that is come from families earning less than $50,000 a year.

So, viewed from an American perspective the fuss in Britain seems odd to say the least. That's not the whole story, of course, but it's a relevant comparison even if it's also hardly surprising that students are unhappy at being expected to pay more for studies that were previously and largely met by the public purse. 

Which means I'm unconvinced by Sunder Katwala's jab at Michael Gove that, uncharacteristically, plays the man rather than the ball. Yes, privatisation is a reasonable goal and, a flourish of journalistic hyperbole aside, no-one is actually planning to prevent the poor from attending university.

Granted, there are "access issues" at many of America's leading universities too but the same issues already apply in the United Kingdom too. It is not at all obvious they will be made worse by these proposals, far less that they wouldn't also be hanging around if Labour's policy preferences prevailed.

As for Nick Clegg, well, what's damaged the Lib Dems is not their flip-flop but the manner in which they have hummed and hawed, thumb-sucked and hand-wrung their fretting in public. A candid admission that they'd been wrong in opposition would have been better than this prevarication and fence-sitting which, in the end, makes them look ridiculous. And while political parties can withstand criticism they rarely thrive when they become objects of ridicule.

Nevertheless, Clegg deserves some credit for doing the right thing. He may pay a heavy price for it but so be it. In this, if perhaps few other matters, he resembles George HW Bush. The elder Bush never entirely recovered from breaking his "Read my lips, no new taxes" pledge but he was right to break that promise anyway. And, actually, old Poppy looks better now than he did in 1992. History has offered him no small vindication. Perhaps it will treat Clegg kindly too.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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