So Nick Clegg has said sorry for raising tuition fees, or, more accurately, said sorry for promising not to raise tuition fees. And presumably for promising before the general election not to break promises as well. This time, Clegg promises not to make stupid promises. Just last year, Clegg said he had nothing to apologise for. You wonder why politicians can confuse people.
It is hard to see how whatever Clegg apologised for or failed to apologise for would do him any good. The apology he went for will make him sound to some people like a cheating husband apologising not for his infidelity, but for promising not to cheat. If he had apologised for raising tuition fees, he would be greeted by scepticism and make himself look weak: why couldn’t he have opposed the rise? Finally, If he hadn’t have apologised at all, the same people annoyed with his apology now would probably say they were disgusted by the lack of an apology. His reputation has sunk to incredibly low depths among everyone: those on the left think he is a cowardly traitor; those on the right think he is an eco-euro-equality-fascist; whilst one of the things the public has decided it does know about politics is that they don’t like Nick Clegg. Little Clegg can do before 2015 will change that.
I think the apology is fairly pointless for the reasons above, but I’ll use this opportunity to defend the rise in tuition fees. It’s becoming a habit of mine to defend the Lib Dems on this blog ( I think partly out of pity) but by defending the rise I’m also criticising their original pledge.
Now, obviously it’s a good thing for clever people to go to university, and obviously poor people shouldn’t be discouraged from going to university because of high fees. However, poor students and high tuition fees aren’t mutually exclusive, as long as there is a favourable loan system. This is because these poor people are, indeed, clever (that’s why they are going to university) so do actually realise that they will benefit from having a degree. This explains why university application figures for students from poor backgrounds did not disproportionately decrease. This is what UCAS Chief Executive Mary Curnock Cook said:
“This in-depth analysis of the 2012 applications data shows that, although there has been a reduction in application rates where tuition fees have increased, there has not been a disproportionate effect on more disadvantaged groups . The 10 per cent decline in applications to English institutions reported in regular UCAS statistics is more properly interpreted as a reduced young application rate of about 5 per cent after correcting for falling populations. Application rates for older applicants have declined slightly more – by about 15 – 20 per cent.
“By retrofitting 2012 tuition fee rates to previous cycles we also show that higher or lower fee rates appear to make little significant difference to application patterns. We also find no evidence of an increase in plans to study while living at home, or any significant shift towards courses with higher starting salaries on graduation.
“There is still an excess of applications over places available in 2012 although this is less exaggerated than in the previous two cycles.”
I should point out that students from lower-income families can benefit from bursaries and maintenance grants not available to others, and perhaps without these less would apply.
Left-wing thought proclaims that low-paid taxpayers who never dreamt of going to university should have to pay for young people (many of whom have rich parents) to get a qualification allowing them to go out and earn much more money than the low-paid taxpayers. It’s a chance for middle-class liberals to pretend they are being progressive while really wanting cheaper education for their children. With significantly more students today than there were even at the beginning of the century, the increased costs for the government of keeping fees low demanded in itself a rethink of the previous tuition policy.
As a caveat, I strongly agree that young people are disproportionately being affected by cuts and the recession, and benefits for the elderly like free travel, the television license and the winter fuel allowance should be means-tested. This is one promise the coalition has unfortunately yet to break.