Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Everybody makes mistakes

No one said being in government would be easy -- but do we have to make it so difficult for ourselves?

The package for tuition fees outlined today is undeniably more progressive than what was in place before. It will, if enacted, ensure that many graduates are lifted out of the need to pay completely. And, let's face it, a finite payment as provided by tuition fees is less noxious than a life-long charge for having gone to university that is a graduate tax. But all those good points -- or not-so-bad points -- are as nothing beside two unavoidable realities.

First: tuition fees, like graduate taxes, are wrong in principle. They penalise those who have gone to university on the false assumption that only the individual educated gains from that experience. It is in society's interest to see a proportion of its young through a liberal education -- at times it might not feel like it, but we all gain from having doctors, lawyers and, yes, broadsheet journalists. Education is not a private good; it should not be paid for as if it were a contract between student and 'provider'.

But, even if that were not the principle, none of us could get away from the fact that our party made a pledge to fight against tuition fees that we said were unfair. We were right then and it remains right. Of course, political parties go back on their promises -- look at the number of lies that came from New Labour. But, if we want to reform politics, we have to live the reform we espouse. Even if it were wrong, we'd need to stand by our pledge.

What now? First of all, we need to recognise that the Browne Review, designed by Labour to give the result it did, is not the only answer to the conundrum. There are larger issues here: what percentage of our young should go to university? What alternative educations are there?

The most depressing aspect of this is that the coalition government has failed to reject Labour's assumptions that were: higher education is a soft target for disinvestment, and that the only education that matters is that which is vocational -- in New Labour-speak, 'strategically important'. That language has continued in Lord Browne's Review, and it's that which needs to be attacked. It's time that Liberals stood up for the value of a liberal education.