Thursday, December 9, 2010

Tuition fee debate in Britain iii

There are large numbers of student protesters in London, including a group in Parliament Square. The police have elected to use the controversial kettling technique, which here as on other occasions, seems designed to provoke conflict.

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I’ve not seen the entire debate, but as far as I can tell, we’ve not heard from either of the two heavy-weight Liberal Democrats who have said that they will not merely abstain, but will vote against the fee increase. Both Sir Menzies Campbell and Charles Kennedy led the Liberal Democrats in its more progressive days, and were committed to eliminating tuition fees as introduced under Labour. I wonder if they are waiting to make their interventions later in the debate for maximum impact, or whether they pledged to keep their opposition muted in the meeting of the LibDems’ parliamentary party earlier this week. It would be disappointing if two such prominent parliamentarians have sold out in this manner.

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The front benches are already being asked to wrap up, and from the sound of it, there is widespread fury at the time limitations placed on the debate. In wrapping up for the opposition, Gareth Thomas condemned the government for presenting the policy as the only choice open to responsible politicians. This, however, gets at the difficulty of Labour’s position. Their proposal of a graduate tax is barely an improvement on the massive tuition fee increases that the Coalition is pushing for, and which look likely to pass. They were the party to introduce tuition fees, and were notorious for cutting off debate in the Commons. That’s why Thomas’ party-political points aren’t doing him much good, though they are invigorating the Labour benches. He should have made a cross-party appeal to pick off as many LibDems and Conservatives as possible.

For the Government, David Willets, wearing an unseemly smirk that George Osbourne and Iain Duncan Smith are sharing, is able to cut the legs from under Labour by quoting the opportunistic Shadow Chancellor, Alan Johnson, back at Labour. Johnson suggested that “students don’t pay [fees], graduates do”. Strictly speaking, this is true of course. But the fact is that going down the road of levying huge fees, and freeing up some universities to set even higher fees, chips away at the welfare state that was created with the support of all three major parties. It undermines the claim of the state to look after its people and to provide access to education. Indeed, it is a part of the right-wing move to put a price on things that many believe should be basic rights.

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