The LibDems’ star will start to dim as soon as everyone thinks through their policy prescriptions, which are lightweight to say the least. Let’s take university tuition fees. Never afraid of being populist they aim to overturn one of the few brave things that Tony Blair did – ask people who are going to get a lot wealthier to pay for their higher education.
The LibDems say in their manifesto:
We will scrap unfair university tuition fees so everyone has the chance to get a degree, regardless of their parents’ income.
Scrap unfair university tuition fees for all students taking their first degree, including those studying part-time, saving them over £10,000 each. We have a financially responsible plan to phase fees out over six years, so that the change is affordable even in these difficult economic times, and without cutting university income. We will immediately scrap fees for final year students.
Their figures on page 100 show the cost of this concession rising year on year to £1,765 million by 2014/5. The trouble with this proposal is that the universities are in dire need of more income and they have already started asking for the uniform tuition fee to be uncapped to allow universities to be able to charge varying rates. If you look at the totality of university financing (figures below provided by the Higher Education Statistics Agency here) you will see that the LibDems’ £1,765 million in 2014/5 is only 6.4% of university income in 2008/9. The £685 million they are talking about in 2010/11 is only 2.7%.
The real problem with the LibDem’s proposal is not the relatively small increase in government spending that it implies. The main problem is that it makes the universities more dependent on the state at a time when the state cannot afford to be generous. This proposal will lead to fewer, worser universities or fewer students or both. In addition if we set the price expectation for a university education at zero and make it effectively a social service we will end up with more under-motivated students who think that university life is a pleasant interlude between school and work. Tuition fees are very useful for focussing the minds of young people and those of their parents. We need young people to be working hard at university or working hard in, er, work, not goofing off on the state. Believe me they do even under the current regime – ask any student.