‘A dark day for education – and trust in politics,’ says Newcastle MP after tuition fees vote

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10 Dec 2010

The coalition government’s decision to triple student tuition fees marked a dark day for higher education and public trust in politics, Newcastle’s Labour MP Paul Farrelly argues, following Thursday’s knife edge vote at Westminster.

After a heated five hour debate, and day long protests, the plans were passed by a slender 21 majority, by 323 votes to 302. Every Labour MP was present to vote against, but only 21 Liberal Democrat MPs honoured their election pledge to oppose any increase.

Six Conservatives also rebelled, joining a chorus of concern that fees of up to £9,000 would deter many children from ordinary backgrounds from applying to university.

‘This is a black day for higher education in Britain,’ Paul said after the vote. ‘It is also a big leap into the dark, which may limit opportunity for many students to go to university at all. Debts of £45,000 or more, after living costs on top, may deter lots of children in the future.’

‘It is also a sad day for trust in British politics. No-one voted for this. It didn’t command an absolute majority in the House of Commons and at the general election all 57 Lib Dem MPs, including the Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, stood on a pledge to do the opposite.’

‘That is a tragic betrayal of trust. The Lib Dems could have drawn a firm ‘red line’ in their coalition agreement. Instead, they planned to ditch their promise, while signing up to it, and simply rolled over to support Tories committed to a market in higher education.’

Seven years ago, Paul co-ordinated the Labour back-bench opposition to a market system, when many of the country’s top universities were pushing for fees far higher than £3,000,  and some for no limit at all, as in the United States.

On Wednesday, he joined MPs from all parties pushing for a delay in the vote until the full package of university reforms was published in a White Paper, as happened in 2003/4.

During Thursdays’s debate, Newcastle’s MP also challenged Liberal Democrat universities minister Vince Cable over his failure to answer formal parliamentary questions, which Paul  had tabled during the week asking for evidence about the effects of the changes.

These related to the likely impact on students from less affluent families taking not only the usual three year university courses, but also longer qualifications in subjects such as languages, medicine and post-graduate teacher training.

Under House of Commons rules, Mr Cable should have provided answers by noon before the start of the tuition fees debate. Replies were, however, only received – and in very cursory fashion – after the vote had taken place.

‘It is clear the government rushed through this decision for political reasons without properly considering the effects – on students and their families, and on universities and courses, which will see up to 80% cuts in teaching funding,’ Paul added.

As part of its changes, the government is planning to withdraw public funding for teaching a wide variety of non-science subjects, such as English, history, geography and languages.

As a result, locally it is estimated that Keele University will lose £13.5 million of its teaching grant, and Staffordshire University a total of £32 million – money which will have to be made up by charging students far higher fees.

Local further education colleges - in Newcastle, Stoke, Fenton and Leek - are also intensely concerned about the abolition of the Educational Maintenance Grant, which helps less affluent students stay on after 16 into further education.

Programmes such as AimHigher - which encourage students from poorer families then to go on to university – are also being axed, along with the Connexions career service.

‘I was the first in my family to go to university and I know, from experience, the pressure on lots of children to go out and contribute to the family income at 16. And that was when there were no tuition fees and university was free,’ Paul said.

‘What I fought long and hard against after becoming an MP was a market free-for-all in education, which might mean less well-off students feeling forced to choose cheaper courses at cheaper universities. That would just reinforce ‘elitism’ and that’s what we may now get.’

During Thursday’s debate, MPs also contested government claims that all but the highest earning students would pay back less each year than they do now.

That was central to Mr Clegg’s assertion that fee changes are ‘progressive’ - in order to persuade Liberal Democrats to back dropping his party’s election pledge.

In fact, independent studies show that graduates on average incomes in the future will pay back more – owing to the higher fees and a real rate of interest on loans for the first time. And that many will take 30 years to pay off the debt, against 11 years on average now.

‘In that case, I am tempted to vote against the Government on the grounds that they are not charging enough,’ one Conservative rebel, Julian Lewis from New Forest East, commented in a speech dripping with irony.

‘Perhaps we should charge quadruple fees, quintuple fees or even sextuple fees, to ensure the entire population of the country can go to university,’ he added.

In the event, despite private misgivings among many on the government side, only five other Conservatives joined Labour in the ‘no’ lobby, with two more abstaining.

In all, 28 Lib Dem MPs supported the changes, including all their newly promoted ministers, and further eight abstained – including Deputy Leader Simon Hughes - or stayed away.

‘The reality is that, if all those Lib Dem MPs - who trooped slavishly through for career reasons – had even used their coalition ‘get-out’ clause and abstained, this tripling of student fees would not have passed. There is just no consensus in the country for these changes,’ Paul said.