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Interpreting the university fees debate

Charles Miller

edits this blog. Twitter: @chblm

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Yesterday's Financial Times covered the university fees row in three ways across its editorial centre spread:

CLEGG ACCEPTS THE HIGH PRICE OF POWER (lead editorial)

CLEGG LEARNS THE LESSONS OF A BREACH OF TRUST (lead comment item, by Philip Stephens)

UNIVERSITY REFORM WILL CREATE A FAIRER BRITAIN (column by Nick Clegg)

 

Contradictory, or just different sides of the same story?

 

Clegg's piece felt like a draft for a speech knocked off by an underling:

"Our reforms of HE do not represent a retreat from the objective of boosting social mobility. Quite the opposite. Social mobility is the overriding social policy goal of this government." 


Clegg argues that increasing fees is "the only responsible answer" to avoiding having to "slash" university places, which would be "economically and socially suicidal".

The piece hints at the drama of the issue only through the violence of its metaphors.

In its editorial, the FT gives Clegg a pat on the back, agreeing that with lower government funding for universities, higher fees are "the only choice". What's more, Clegg should not be accused of wavering but was right to consult his party on tomorrow's vote.  

And the FT reminds us - something often forgotten in coverage - that the coalition agreement gives Lib Dem MPs the right to abstain. So if they do, it's not a sign that the coalition is falling apart. 

The third article, by Philip Stephens, steps back to question the politics of what is taken for granted by both the above: the inevitability of cuts in government funding for universities. Stephens' point is that "it is not self-evident that once students reach the age of 18 education ceases to be a public good":

"The cut in university funding was a political choice ... the Treasury could have made its savings by means-testing winter fuel grants and free bus passes handed out indiscriminately to pensioners. The reason it baulked? Politics. David Cameron had promised to protect the benefits. Much better that Mr Clegg renege on a pledge to students than the prime minister go back on his word to the elderly."


So is the university fees story primarily about economics or politics? It's easy for FT columnists and irate students to complain that, for all the talk about facing economic reality, 'it's really about politics'.

And the politics certainly hurts: the BBC never tires of showing a pre-election video of Nick Clegg solemnly promising to get rid of tuition fees.

For students, that makes it a story about hypocrisy: 'As soon as you've voted for them, they break their promises.'

What Clegg can't say, because it would sound sulky, is that 'if more of you had voted for us, we might have been able to do what we promised'.

His problem - one seldom touched on in the hurly-burly of daily coverage - is that government itself, of whatever kind, is built on a kind of hypocrisy. It's what keeps the show on the road.

The monarch only invites someone to form a government if they look like being able to command support in parliament for a programme of legislation. That means finding enough MPs who are prepared to go along with proposals because, whatever they may think about this or that particular measure, on balance, they support the package. 

In practice, those loyalties usually follow party lines. Coalition government simply exposes the natural strains in the system. 

 

Clegg and his ministerial colleagues are - for the most part - playing the game by not talking about the arguments behind the scenes. In public, members of the Government can't distinguish between parts of the programme they have argued for and those they have battled to avoid but are now having to live with. 

In that, Nick Clegg is resisting the temptation to defend himself from the charges of hypocrisy. But there's little pay-off in media or PR terms from that part of the game. 

Wikileaks is exposing the startling frankness of normally secret diplomatic language, to the possible detriment of the wheels that diplomacy oils. And political diaries are, with ever-reducing delay, doing the same for politics.

 

It's said that 'to govern is to choose'. It is perhaps also true that, for all the talk of the value of transparency, 'to govern is to bite your tongue'.

But, however important, a politician not saying something doesn't make much of a story - even if it's the missing piece of the jigsaw that could help explain a complicated issue like tuition fees.

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