In Defence of the Liberal Democrats

In a move that will set the Internet alight and bring empires crashing to the ground, my blog this week is not about New Zealand. This is likely to become more common over the next few months, but I know the first time can be a little scary. Don’t worry, we’ll ease into it gently with a nice, safe, non-controversial topic: kitte-HAHA NOT REALLY. WE’RE DOING POLITICS. SHIT.

Tomorrow the British public will go to the polls in the UK General Election and beat the crap out of the Liberal Democrats for – in my humble opinion – just two main reasons. The first reason is quite general: the Liberal Democrats are Tory-enablers. Everyone’s mad that they let Dave be Prime Minister instead of Gordon, even though no-one liked Gordon (I liked Gordon!) and would have been equally mad if they’d let him continue being in charge. I mean, come on, what were they supposed to do? Prop up an unpopular Labour government by forming a minority coalition? Wash their hands of the whole affair and refuse to lead? Burn the Houses of Parliament to the ground and force everyone to bow before Emperor Clegg?

Anyway, I don’t want to talk about that. I want to talk about the second reason, which is much more specific. The Liberal Democrats broke their pre-election pledge not to raise tuition fees, and instead (mostly) voted to raise tuition fees. This single issue caused an apocalyptic collapse in Liberal Democrat support (particularly amongst their core vote of, er, students) that they have been simply unable to reverse. They gambled that they would be forgiven by the time of the next General Election – and let’s face it, most political shitstorms are forgotten in a tenth of that time – but they underestimated just how betrayed their voting base felt. The collapse in Lib Dem support can be traced overwhelmingly to their decision to back the bill trebling tuition fees.

So what exactly do you know about the law that raised the cap on tuition fees to £9000? In my experience, most people don’t know anything about it. The media’s coverage of the whole debacle basically amounted to writing the number 9000 on a baseball bat and using it to hit everyone in the head. But here’s the thing: I do know about it, because for three years it was my job to know about it (IntoUniversity staff represent!). And I want to argue that the biggest mistake the Liberal Democrats made was failing to adequately explain and defend the law, and the biggest mistake their supporters made was not even bothering to find out what the law did.

I’d like to highlight a few of the key – and widely ignored – facets of the law.

The entirety of the tuition fee can be borrowed from the government in exactly the same way as before.
Despite what the media keeps loudly and ludicrously claiming, no family or prospective student has to come up with £9000/year in advance. All that money can be borrowed from the government. Yes, there are exasperating blind spots, but they already existed under the previous policy.

Yearly repayments for graduates are lower, significantly so in many cases.
The threshold for repayments was raised from £15000 to £21000. If you compare repayment models, all graduates will pay back less yearly under the new model and the least well-off graduates will pay back less overall. Let’s look at some interesting examples, based on a standard three year degree, with full tuition fee and maintenance loan.

Annual Salary Repayments pre-2011 Repayments post-2011
£20000 £327/year for 25 years, giving a total of £8179 £0/year for 30 years, giving a total of £0
£25000 £777/year for 25 years, giving a total of £19428 £360/year for 30 years, giving a total of £10800
£30000 £1227/year for 25 years, giving a total of £24720 £810/year for 30 years, giving a total of £24300

*These are rough but representative figures, calculated using http://www.savethestudent.org/student-debt-calculator

What does this show? For all salaries up to £30000, the overall cost of university education is less under the new system. (One can also note that, although the overall cost is more for salaries over £30000, the yearly cost is always less.)

It is the law that universities charging higher tuition fees must demonstrate that the new fees will not prohibit access to university.
In order to charge £9000/year tuition fees, universities must produce an annually-reviewed access agreement that lays out what actions they will take in terms of widening participation at their university. This includes outreach programmes and packages of financial support, such as bursaries and grants. Basically, universities have to use some of their extra income to encourage students from low-income families to enter university and to provide them with necessary financial assistance.

We can argue all day about the pros and cons of this system, but my point is simply this: if you previously supported the Liberal Democrats, I really don’t believe it’s worth abandoning them over this particular issue, when – in many ways – the new law is demonstrably more progressive than the previous one and actually does more to support the poorest members of society.

In actual fact, despite the prevailing narrative, I truly believe that the Lib Dems have stuck to their principles and fought hard for their policies throughout their time in government. Yes, they’ve had more failures than successes (the AV referendum, an elected second chamber) but mostly they’ve just been terrible at advertising what they’ve managed to achieve in the face of only making up 16% of the coalition. You think a Conservative government would have built a tuition fee bill with so much support for those at a financial disadvantage? Or raised the personal allowance by over £4000? Or introduced the pupil premium and universal free school meals for infants? Or been so keen to legalise gay marriage? (Or delayed the News Corporation takeover of BSkyB long enough for it to collapse? :P)

I get that people are angry that the Liberal Democrats broke their tuition fee promise, and I would argue that it was simply naive of them to make it. I think they did the best they could as junior partners in a coalition, and I think they deserve to be forgiven.

If not in time for this General Election (and let’s face it, they’re completely screwed), then please – for the love of everything that the Lib Dems continue to stand for – at least in time for 2020.

If it makes you feel any better, next week’s blog is about a goat.

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2 thoughts on “In Defence of the Liberal Democrats

  1. Pingback: Four Secrets To Voting Like A Christian | Peter's Blog

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