Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Vince Cable backs Browne but can he persuade his party?

Vince Cable, Secretary of State for Business & Skills and ultimately responsible for higher education policy, stood before the House of Commons this afternoon to face and Urgent Questions session about Lord Browne's independent review.

As expected, Dr Cable backed the proposals.  He did so with obvious discomfort and regrets but backed them he did, describing them as "fair and affordable" and "progressive".

This is a monumental U-turn by a Cabinet minister who only three months ago tried to bounce Lord Browne into entertaining the prospect of a graduate tax - something that the former head of BP was never going to do.

In the report published today, Lord Browne and his review panel put forth the most straightforward and comprehensive demolition of the graduate tax.  In terms of intellectual mileage, this policy - if we could ever call it that - is an empty tank.  It is extinct.  It is an ex-policy.

In fact, the Business Secretary's injection of it into the debate was like putting unleaded petrol into a diesel car.  It just won't work, as the report shows.  Graduates would have to pay the tax on top of loan repayments.  It could continue indefinitely, as opposed to loan repayments for no more than 30 years.  You pay it at lower incomes, i.e. when you cross the income tax threshold, not the higher threshold of £21,000 proposed.  Government would face an enormous upfront cost until tax revenues came on stream.  It removes the student experience as a marker of quality.

Vince Cable gets this and he is enough of a man to say so.  He has had the courage to do something, implicitly at least, that very few politicians ever achieve - he has admitted that he was wrong.  As a Liberal Democrat MP, having signed the pre-election pledge not the raise tuition fees, he dearly wished a graduate tax might be a plausible option.

This is the cold reality of governing.  You have to make tough decisions based on the evidence put in front of you - decisions made in the greater good.  Liberal Democrat MPs signed those pledges without the prospect of Government.  I imagine that many more Conservative MPs (than the four who did) would have signed it were they in that position.

I maintain my own support for the Conservative Party's original stance on tuition fees, i.e. to oppose them in their entirety.  In an ideal world, we wouldn't have them.  Yet the world is always far from ideal.

The courage to admit you were wrong, particularly when still in power, is rare in politics.  Sticking by your fundamental principles is becoming increasingly rare.  The position of Lib-Dem MPs like Greg Mulholland and Sir Menzies Campbell is, therefore, heartening.

On this occasion, however, I desperately hope that the MPs considering voting against the proposals will recognise the reality of the situation in British higher education and abstain.  They are no less principled as a result but they show the courage to do what is right.

The elite institutions will not wait for the Government.  The Oxfords, Cambridges and Imperials of this world will go their own way if they have to.  I don't, for one, believe that we want an Ivy League in this country.  That, however, is how things will go if Lord Browne's eminently sensible - if regrettable - proposals fall by the wayside.

1 comment:

  1. Reasoned, measured analysis - if only more of the outrageously reactionary commentators thought logically about this.