The story is that the Lib Dems, ever so close to students, signed a pledge not to raise tuition fees and reneged on it once in power. The broken promise is causing revolt on the streets and threatens the extinction of the party at the next election. As a narrative, the story is coherent, touches every emotional chord from hope to betrayal, and from trust to suspicion. It is a classic story, it has some truth in it, but it’s the wrong story.
The Lib Dems showed immaturity before the election promising something they couldn’t keep. Once in power, they had to grow up quickly and act like grown-ups, but they missed a trick. I believe they got a fairer deal for university funding on the basis of the Browne’s review, commissioned by Labour, and very likely to be implemented by Labour. However, the Lib Dems failed to come to terms with their former self, apologise profusely and propose a bolder plan for the future of higher education.
All political parties have failed to ask the fundamental questions: what are universities for? What is education for? What kind of education? What education should be subsidised? You cannot deal with education funding unless you have a clear idea about what education is. The criteria for funding for theoretical research cannot be the same as those for research in applied disciplines. It is important that higher education has different streams of funding to reflect the nature and function of what the money is used for. Students understand this, so why can’t the government engage with students and have a mature discussion?
Personally, I would have an ‘academic’ path for more theoretical studies; a ‘professional’ path for the training of doctors, lawyers, architects and so on; and a ‘vocational’ or technical (or whatever you want to call it) for the more work-focussed or applied disciplines. This does not mean that the academic path is ‘better’ than the vocational one. If you want to be an actor, RADA is, among many other non-University establishments, one of the best places for dramaturgical training. We don’t look down at people from RADA, do we? Personally, I don’t look down at tradesmen who are competent and fair either. This is because I don’t believe in just one standard according to which people are to be valued. I’m not a scientist, an electrician or a doctor, I’d like to think that I’m not useless because of that. I accept I might be useless for other reasons :)
Further, it seems to me that the vocational institutes would be better placed to attract private money, have a link with the industry and a real benefit to the economy. However, education should not be left to ‘the market’. The classics might not have much 'purchasing power', but we should value them as a society and that’s why government funding needs to be available to ensure valuable learning and research don’t simply disappear.
I appreciate that the ‘fees issue’ is a hot potato, mostly because political parties have so far played games with it and failed to discuss education seriously. However, the ‘battle of Trafalgar square’, by focussing on fees, lies and the Lib Dems, prevents any discussion on higher education. I fear the Tories would quite like a marketisation of universities, which is now easier to achieve (step by step) given that all the anger will be poured onto the Lib Dems. I understand why some Lib Dem MPs voted against fees to honour the pledge, but I sincerely hope that they will now put pressure on the leadership to show more courage and boldness.
Politics should not be about entrenched positions of left and right, about the ‘sacred cows’ that cannot be touched simply because things have always been done that way. Politics should be about asking the question: what kind of society do we want?