Political Promise

The elephant in the room and why the NUS pledge might not save university students

In Vicky Wong on June 28, 2010 at 9:00 am

By Vicky Wong

The NUS pledge is a petition put forward to MPs pledging to oppose the lifting of the cap in university tuition fees. Nearly every Labour, Liberal Democrat, Independent and minor party candidates who stood in the general election has signed the pledge.

All Liberal Democrat election candidates and all 55 of their MPs have signed the NUS pledge to oppose raising the cap in tuition fees, and the coalition government’s stance (the Conservative stance) is to wait until the Lord Browne review in Autumn. University tuition fees is the elephant in the room that will most definitely divide the coalition government, and the Labour Party would be keen to use this against the Lib Dems after the Browne review. A huge amount of pressure will rest with Nick Clegg, whose constituency of Sheffield Hallam is home to two universities, and whose pledge to the petition sits as one of the most high profile ones.

On the other side of the dispatch box, the Labour Party are on slightly easier territory to deal with; as Her Majesty’s opposition, the only item on the agenda is to just oppose everything the government says. In this case, divide the coalition. The general line has been to make higher education accessible to all, but at the same time, create a fair system for taxpayers, some or most of which may not have attended university.

On the one hand, one cannot help but agree that the previous government have promoted a culture where higher education is the ultimate Holy Grail in which every single person in society has to aspire to. This ultimately has come at a price as further education colleges and more vocational courses are looked down upon as less value compared to that shiny 2:1 degree from university. One success of the coalition government with regards to education is the need to address more practical vocational courses. I am instantly reminded of an article I read on this blog by Stewart Owadally, titled “A Cut Above the Rest: Why University Funding Should Be The Last To See Cuts”. Owadally’s article argued that cuts could be good providing it redresses the balance between higher and further education. Recently, Dr. Cable has wisely made note that the new government will be promoting alternative routes of further or higher learning, including adult classes and vocational courses.

So far, Ming Campbell (a vice chancellor of St Andrews University), has pledged to vote against a rise in tuition fees and hopes that his colleagues will follow suit. But should all 55 Lib Dem MPs oppose any Conservative stance to agree to a rise in university tuition fees, this division will be exploited by the Labour party and will lead the promised strong and united coalition to fall.

The Lib Dems are understandably in a difficult position; consenting to or even abstaining from voting on the issue of lifting the cap will lead to uproar from students who would be led to believe that the Lib Dems are being lightweights or dithery. But on the other hand, should all 55 Lib Dem MPs choose to vote decisively against any Conservative pledge to lift the cap on fees, although it may win the support of students (that is the ones who voted Lib Dems), they will risk dividing the coalition. Either way, Labourites will be looking forward to the opportunity to interrogate Lib Dems about more broken promises.

However, we must not forget this; although around 10 Conservative Parliamentary candidates have signed the NUS pledge, we do not definitely know in detail what the contents of the Browne review will be (other than tuition fees will have to go up, but by how much is s of yet uncertain), and indeed what the definite Conservative stance on the tuition fees cap will be. But the decisive emergency budget announcement made recently can only lead to conclusions that universities will be next to tighten their belts.

Ultimately, it is the support of the students that will make or break the Lib Dems, and no doubt, they will be dreading the beginning of the next Academic year, which will see the results of the Browne review.


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