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Tuition Fees - the debate and vote missed the real point.

December 13, 2010 11:32 AM
By Jonathan Haggart. - Thursday 9th December in Haggis in Ponderland Jonathan Haggart's thoughts on things he thinks about. Tweet @jonathanhaggart.

So it's official, fees for students will go up to a maximum of £9,000. But amid all the rhetoric and riots, the broken promises and broken windows, party politics has served to disguise what to my mind is the real disappointment here - that the principle that a free education is a right for everyone who seeks it, seems to have been ignored.

The argument for fees has often come from Joe Public, repeating the same mantra - 'why should they get it for free?'. Well, they don't, do they? Prior to the fees that Labour introduced in 1998 do you know how they used to be paid for? That's right, taxes!

Governments used to have the balls to increase and decrease tax depending on how much they needed for their programmes, but Labour, rather than, say, stick 10p on the top top rate of income tax, set us off down a path that has become increasingly common. That is, the things that used to be paid for by taxation suddenly became extra, to be paid for by the user.

At the same time the Government set about cutting basic rate tax for headlines in the red tops. The tax that would have paid the college fees that subsequently couldn't be afforded.

Now, tax isn't necessarily for anything specific, as Joe Public now seems to require, but it all went into the pot that paid for everything...health, welfare, education, transport, defence...you know. Apart from for the kids, I've haven't claimed from the welfare state and I don't use the NHS much, but I don't begrudge my deductions being spent in those areas. I can see that what I pay helps to cover these things, but I don't expect those that need it to pay money back when they start to get back on their feet.

General taxation has been sacrificed though, and the tax our parents had contributed to pay for our education and that graduates paid after university to pay for it again was suddenly not enough, for a bit of spin. Labour had to make their Public Relations tax cuts.

In the North West, we saw another example a couple of years ago when Manchester City Council tried to introduce a congestion charge. The electorate told them to think again, reminding them that they had already paid for transport improvements - trouble was the Government spent it on Iraq instead. That was their choice, and the electorate has the right to chuck them out because of it. A Government should NOT think it is able to come back for more indirectly having wasted what they'd already collected. If you are going to tax us, tax us properly, not by secondary means.

But we are where we are and today's government must deal with what is before them. The fees genie was let out of the bottle many years ago and the likelihood was always that it would be the thin end of the wedge. Labour have been incredibly disingenuous during this malaise, particularly when they support a graduate tax. As pointed out previously on here, the measures voted through mean that students pay nothing up front and then pay back a little bit each month as they earn over a certain amount. A graduate tax means that students pay nothing up front and then pay back a little bit each month as they earn over a certain amount. The only difference is that the measures voted through appear to be finite.

Labour commissioned the Browne report, and let's not be in any doubt about this; they would have reacted to it by putting fees up somehow. As it is, they have revelled in opposition, as is their right. And whilst I can't pretend it hasn't been fantastic to finally see students politicised, you can't help but think that they are being led by the nose by their Labour Party Member president, who also supports a graduate tax.

Somehow, the Tories have come out of this relatively spotless. The Browne report suggested fees should be uncapped, and they would have gone with that were it not for Liberal intervention, which certainly would have made those elite universities out of reach of the less well off. Repayment terms may not have been so generous, the 30 year write off may not have been there or the threshold as high as £21k but they have not been the bad guys of the piece. Somehow they are getting credit for the progressive nature whilst the honour of being the hate figure falls to the Lib Dems.

And they deserve some of that flak I'm afraid and it is going to be a long drag persuading people to vote for them again. Despite their influence in tempering the proposals and making them progressive, the bottom line is they made that pledge. When it came to the coalition agreement, that should have been one of their 'red lines'. A right to abstain was not enough and nor is it enough to simply change your mind and put it down to not winning the election...you made the pledge.

Deep down, it's not the voting through of the measures that has disappointed people, because I give the public some credit for recognising that all political parties would have produced proposals like this, it's that Nick Clegg and his party have turned out to be just like the rest of them. Labour and the Conservatives have broken many many promises in my lifetime, but sadly the Liberal Democrats have once again proved the old adage that no matter who you vote for, the government always gets in.