Newcastle MP urges Lib Dems to honour election promise on university fees

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01 Dec 2010

Newcastle’s Labour MP Paul Farrelly accused Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg of ‘old fashioned cynicism’ in letting down students, their families and Liberal Democrat voters in his
U-turn over university tuition fees.

Paul’s remarks came in a heated debate in the House of Commons last night, while young people all over country demonstrated once again over the Lib Dem change of mind, despite election pledges, which will see fees triple to £9,000 a year.

Lib Dem leader Mr Clegg, who ducked out of attending the debate, also came under fire from a series of MPs for planning to drop the party’s signature, vote-winning policy at the same time as signing the student pledge and using it in the Lib Dem election manifesto.

‘If most of the 57 Liberal Democrats who signed their election pledge stuck to their guns, we would again prevent a market in higher education,’ Paul told a packed House of Commons.

‘This is not ‘new politics’, Mr Clegg, it is time-dishonoured, old fashioned cynicism. The only thing that has changed since before the election is that the Lib Dems are finally in government. No wonder students are demonstrating and Lib Dem voters feel betrayed.’

From 2003, Paul co-ordinated Labour backbench opposition to ‘variable tuition fees’ and a market in higher education, where price is a factor along with course and university.

The great concern, based on evidence from other countries, is that students from less well-off backgrounds choose cheaper courses at cheaper universities, leaving many places and subjects – like medicine – even more the preserve of an affluent ‘elite’.

As a result of the campaign, fees were capped at £3,000 a year – paid back afterwards – student grants were improved, bursaries introduced and a full vote in parliament secured, so MPs were accountable for their vote before any change to the cap on fees.

In the latest debate, Paul encouraged Lib Dem MPs to ignore their leadership and not trade power – or ministerial car keys – for principle.

‘Labour backbench pressure had real results on the market in higher education, which Liberal Democrats in particular might heed before rushing for an early vote on fees,’ he said. ‘It showed what can be achieved by standing up and being counted.’

‘The new policy is not only a breach of faith, it is a large leap in the dark,’ Paul added. ‘It is hard to see what in the coalition’s policy will improve participation of students from less well-off backgrounds, but I fear much of it will make the situation worse.’

Under the new policy, universities will be allowed to charge fees of up to £9,000 a year, leaving students with average debts of £45,000 - including loans for living costs - for the usual three year course. Longer courses, like medicine or teaching, will cost much more.

During the debate, to astonishment from all sides, Business and Universities Secretary of State Vince Cable said his inclination was to vote for the policy, but added that he was prepared to abstain for the sake of Lib Dem unity.

Lib Dem John Leech, the MP for Manchester Withington, was a lone voice on the party’s backbenches, committing to honour his pledge and vote against the policy.

Following the debate, Lib Dems joined Conservatives in rejecting a motion calling for the government’s plans, including details about student support, to be published in full beforehand in a White Paper before any decision on fees is taken.

‘When the system last changed, in 2006, improvements to student support were vital in offsetting the deterrent effect of higher fees,’ Paul said after the debate. ‘When we fought our battle, the government had published a White Paper a full year before the vote, so we could see and argue for improvements to the whole package.’

‘As it stands, the government now intends to rush a vote on fees alone before Christmas, to help the Lib Dem leadership out of its misery. That will reduce the leverage, though, that more principled, ordinary Lib Dem MPs and voters have over what happens next.’

‘The big difference between then and now, too, is that changes before were all about getting extra money into universities. This time it’s about making up for cuts in teaching budgets of up to 80%, putting the whole burden on young people. No one in the election voted for that.’

For the full text of Paul’s speech in the House of Commons, click here

Picture at the top: Paul signing the same student pledge on fees as all 57 Lib Dem MPs did, and – as before – he intends to stick by it.