I read a blog post tonight, entitled “ConDemd” which detailed the real life experience of a university graduate, and the ongoing effects of student loans.  Despite that blog title,  the fee regime Betty, and most further education students since 2002 have experienced was introduced by the Labour Government of Tony Blair, supported mostly by the Tories, and 100% opposed by the Lib-Dems.  As it was also introduced at a time when the country was experiencing an unprecedented boom, it was clearly ideologically driven, and not by absolute financial necessity.  It was said by opponents at the time that by opening this particular Pandora’s Box, it would be impossible to reverse, and be likely to be expanded.

This was indeed the intent of the Labour (and Tory) party, when they commissioned the recent Browne report into Further Education funding.  They could have left the system Betty experienced as it was, but by this time were up against the financial wall, and had to make some very grim choices.  Labour delayed the report until after the general election, with the hope that they could avoid it’s inevitable electoral effects.

For what it’s worth, I am dead against tuition fees in principle, and believe that your first degree should be fully funded by the state.  I think it’s a price worth paying for an educated populace. Personally, I have no degree, or any qualification worthy of the name to speak of, so did not benefit from the free fees and grant system available to my peers in the 1980’s.  I also live in Scotland, where the Parliament has cut other expenditure in order to pay the tuition fees of every student’s first degree (or HND, HNC etc).  This can’t last in the current climate, and will change soon.  I do however have three sons, aged 20, 17 and 8, so I do have a dog in this fight.  My eldest is studying at Glasgow Uni, where my 2nd son hopes to study medicine next year.

I understand fully that this is an emotive subject, and I was drawn into a Twitter argument about it this week.  Oddly, as I was trying to agree with someone, who insisted I was picking a fight, and kept swearing at me.  I do however feel that many people are holding to uninformed views which have been fed to them by a reactionary media, in the form of TV and newspapers, along with online fury whipped up by students.

The politics of the day has contrived the parties into some very strange positions, where Labour wants to retain their currently discredited system (or have a graduate tax), the Tories want to move away from direct funding of Universities by government, and the Lib-Dems want to cut other projects in order to abolish tuition fees.  In practice though, what the coalition agreement has meant, is that neither the Tories or Lib-Dems can stick to their manifesto on all issues.  Tuition fees is an issue where the LD’s frankly were always going to have to get shafted on.  Like it or not, there are other more important issues where the LD’s had to stand their ground, such as it was.

The bottom line is that no-one got what they wanted, and the LD’s have had to accept serious embarrassment, as they had signed a “Pledge” in addition to their manifesto commitments.  This was clearly a stupid thing to do, and they bitterly regret it now.

It must be remembered though, that the vast majority of the electorate voted for parties that fully intended to drastically increase tuition fees.  And surprise surprise, that’s what they got.  It seems equally clear, that the only way to have avoided that, would have been for a Lib-Dem government to have been elected.  The uncomfortable truth is that student votes for LD’s weren’t wasted, they just weren’t enough.

Stephen O'Donnell is a lifelong recruiter, internet enthusiast, fadgadget and peripatetic writer.

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