Thursday, 9 December 2010

Coming to a conclusion on fees

I’m grateful to everyone who took the trouble to contact me about the difficult issue of fees.

I’ve thought long and hard about it, as you might imagine. I’ve had to consider two key things – the content of the policy and the things we said before the election.

I think the policy is far more positive and fair than the media reports would imply. At the moment, students repay their fees as soon as they start earning £15,000 per year, well below the typical graduate starting salary. Under the new scheme, repayments won’t start until £21,000. This means that every new graduate will pay less each month than under the present system. They will pay for longer, but after 30 years the balance of their account will be cancelled if they haven’t cleared it. So unlike a credit card debt, there is an end point, and those who don’t earn much won’t end up paying much of the fees back. In terms of fees, there is no risk in going to university - if your career takes off, you pay back fully, if it doesn't, your outstanding debt gets written off.

A second important positive feature of the change is that part-time students (who make up a surprisingly high proportion of undergraduates) will not have to find fees up front. Until now part-time students have been the poor relations and this will change.

Third, the basic cap on fees will be £6,000 (less than double the current cap). Those universities who want to go further than this will have to show they are working effectively to remove barriers to young people from diverse background getting on courses.

Given the need to make long-term changes in order to get the public finances on an even keel, I think that this is as fair a package as could have been achieved. In the words of the second half of the famous NUS pledge: “I will vote for a more progressive alternative”.

Which brings me on to the things that were said before the Election.

I stood on a manifesto that had literally hundreds of policies and pledges. If we had won the election I would have expected us to implement them, and would have been on the front row of the demonstrations if we hadn’t.

But we were faced with a situation where the electorate elected just 57 MPs, and that makes a huge difference to our ability to implement our policies. We could have sat in opposition and voted issue by issue. But then we would only have been able to implement our commitments if someone else agreed with us! I judged (and still believe) that it was better for us to form a Coalition both in the national interest and in order to deliver more of the pledges on which we were elected.

By the end of this Parliament I believe we will indeed have delivered far more of the things we promised before the Election than we have ever done before. I believe that this was the best way to keep faith to the electorate for the things that I said before the Election. Of course I wish that we could have made more progress in the negotiations over fees. But I ask myself how many other things that we stand for, and on which people voted for us, we would have sacrificed along the way. And if we hadn’t ended up giving ground on fees, would I now be having angry e-mails from people saying I had betrayed them on climate change or civil liberties?

In sum, I believe that the way I have kept faith with the people who voted for me is to seek to implement as much as possible of the manifesto on which I was elected, as part of a Coalition programme for government, and on fees, to seek to make the policy as fair as possible given the crippling financial situation in which we find ourselves as a nation. I believe that I have done both of those things and will be supporting the package in the vote which will shortly take place.