Telegraph turns on NUS over fees

Today’s Telegraph reports that the NUS would prefer to remove almost all of the hardship grants than charge higher fees.

The Daily Telegraph has seen emails from Mr Porter and his team in which the NUS leadership urged ministers to cut grants and loans as an alternative to raising tuition fees.

In private talks in October, the NUS tried to persuade ministers at the Department for Business to enact their planned 15 per cent cut in higher education funding without lifting the cap on fees.

I’m not sure this is anything other than an exercise in the dark arts on the day of the tuition fees votes – reading the article, it appears that the NUS responded to a query along the lines of the “here are our unmovable parameters – what would you do?” and given the rock of a rise in a fees and the hard place of removing grants, chose the latter.

But as a number of Lib Dem bloggers have noted, the NUS is more than a little confused on their policy. Millennium Elephant compared the two schemes as follows:

The Coalition proposes that new graduates pay an amount every month proportional to their ability to pay, with additional help for the lowest earners, repayments to be capped at either thirty years or a maximum total payment (“paying off the loan”).

The NUS proposes that graduates pay an amount every month proportional to their ability to pay, with additional help for the lowest earners, repayments to be capped at either twenty-five years or a maximum total payment (“for fairness”).

The five year difference in repayments is because the NUS scheme also means going back to everyone in the UK who has already graduated, regardless of the finance scheme in place at the time, and asking them to pay a graduate contribution also. Is there a register of people with degrees? If not, I’m sure the nation’s graduates are sufficiently masochistic that, on receipt of a letter asking if they had graduated, they’d all reply “Yes! Harder! Tax me harder!”

Caron Lindsay, writing in direct response to today’s Telegraph, points out an additional irony

Look at it this way. We’re being held to account for an NUS pledge which the NUS themselves no longer support. Their scheme, not a million miles from that proposed by the Coalition, was, I’m sure, not drawn up of the back of an envelope overnight. You can tell the close relationship between Labour and the NUS by the sheer number of key NUS figures who’ve made it into Government – like Phil Woolas and Jack Straw. This pledge was never meant to deliver the abolition of fees, it was meant to trap the Liberal Democrats. You can bet your life that if we’d ended up in coalition with Labour, we’d be voting on the NUS scheme tomorrow night. We should never have signed it.

I’m still not sure how those who say we shouldn’t have signed any pledges at the time are quite working their way through the mire. How were our candidates supposed to respond to students? “Yes, our policy is 100% in line with your pledge but GET THAT PEN AWAY FROM ME I’M NOT SIGNING ANYTHING!!” What, really, will our candidates do with pledges next time round?

What frustrates me personally most of all in all the mess surrounding this issue is the sort of internal, party democracy issue that won’t wash with the protesting hordes because it takes more than a minute to explain. But our party policy, voted on at conference by party members still stands. Over several years, many attempts from leaders within the Lib Dems to remove our policy of free tertiary education were defeated by our grass roots. The left within the party, fearing that it would not make it to our most recent manifesto organised themselves to ensure the party committees charged with writing the policy contained enough people of the right left views to maintain our policy into the 2010 manifesto. And yet this organisation within the party was not enough to see our strongly held views implemented by the party in government. And still the grassroots party has options. We could bankrupt our own party by demanding a special conference. I don’t dare think how much blood there will be on the carpet at our next scheduled conference in Nick Clegg’s backyard. And there is still the nuclear option of 75 quorate local parties demanding a new leadership battle.

As I write, John Leech MP has just concluded his intervention in the debate by telling the House of Commons he has no doubts that had the Labour party still been in government, they would have implemented the Browne Review themselves. I share his cynicism. The Labour party care nothing for students beyond embarrassing the government. When I cast my eyes over the short list of Labour candidates who signed the NUS pledge [XLS file], there seems to be a fairly strong correlation between those who signed it and and those who were fighting off a credible challenge from the Liberal Democrats. The Labour party don’t care about student finance, as their history in government shows quite clearly, they are merely able to use it opportunistically to humiliate the Lib Dems. The Conservatives needed their arms twisting to amend the Browne review into something even the IFS can call progressive. Ultimately, William Cullerne Brown has it right:

For students, there is a counter-intuitive conclusion. If you lean to the progressive side (as presumably most of the protesters do) and want to make a difference, which party should you join? Join Labour and you know you will be turning yourself into cannon fodder. Join the Lib Dems and it is now clear that you really can make a difference. Hang the effigies by all means. But Clegg’s despair is in fact a great reason to get one of those yellow membership cards.

In his article on these pages on Sunday, David Allen suggested the tuition fee vote might be sufficient to bring down the government. From May to December, we have had the imponderable question about what difference the Lib Dems are making. Are the concessions we have drawn from the Coalition worth the price we are paying, in our own eyes and in the eyes of the voting public? At least if the government falls, and the Liberal Democrats are annihilated at a subsequent general election, we would find out the answer. The Labour party would have to put away the onions that give them their crocodile tears, write on their blank sheet of paper, and finally get the balls to decide which of their unaffordable schemes they would actually save. Or we would see what untempered Conservatism looks like. Is the pyrrhic victory worth it?

* Alex Foster is a contributing editor at Lib Dem Voice, and received a grant for the first of his degrees. His second degree was a part time MA and as such he financed up front fees from part time work. You can decide for yourself if Film Studies MA was worth the money by reading his academic writing.