Nick Clegg took a bold decision to lead the Liberal Democrats into coalition in 2010. Now we are a year into the subsequent Conservative government, it is clear how much difference they made in office. As the smaller party, this may have been achieved by blocking things more than pushing their own agenda. But, even if they were never to return from their current electoral position, it would still be a substantial legacy.
Like every party in office, the Lib Dems made mistakes too and none more so than over undergraduate tuition fees. By promising to abolish fees then voting to triple them, they did the thing voters hate most: saying one thing and doing another. It still haunts them.
Most people think they know the story. But, as a special adviser in Vince Cable’s department, I saw it close up. In a wide-ranging new paper for the peer-reviewed journal Oxford Review of Education (free to access) on the Coalition’s higher education’s policies, I argue the Lib Dems’ mistakes were bigger and more numerous than has been recognised. They made one big strategic error, yes, but also various subsequent tactical errors too.
At the 2010 election, all 57 victorious Liberal Democrats signed a pledge for the National Union of Students (NUS) that committed them ‘to vote against any increase in fees’. It won them sackloads of votes.* Backing the NUS pledge was a failure of leadership because Clegg and his allies did not support their own policy. In September 2008, the Liberal Democrat higher education spokesman, Stephen Williams, told Times Higher Education abolishing tuition fees was unsustainable: ‘Mr Williams said that Nick Clegg, the leader of the party, had come to this conclusion after “long internal discussions”.’
Clegg sought to change the policy but was blocked by his party’s members. He cannot fairly be blamed for that, but he is responsible for then putting the abolition of fees at the centre of his entire 2010 election strategy. As Michael White of the Guardian put it, ‘Given that Clegg had spent two years ineffectually manoeuvring to ditch his own policy in favour of something more realistic, the puzzle is why he let himself be cornered into endorsing the anti-fees pledge in the election, complete with “read my lips” photos.’ After all, there had been no Damascene conversion. Danny Alexander, the head of the Liberal Democrat team responsible for negotiating with the other parties in the event of a hung parliament, made it clear in private that abolishing fees was a disposable policy: ‘On tuition fees we should seek agreement on part time students and leave the rest.’
Immediately after the election, the joint Conservative and Liberal Democrat Coalition Programme junked the commitment on fees. It said Lib Dem MPs could abstain if they did not like the Coalition’s higher education policies. This was the second big mistake because it ensured no course of action could satisfy both the NUS pledge and the Coalition Programme. The former committed the party’s MPs to vote against fees and the latter held them to abstain or vote in favour. So all three options – voting for, voting against or abstaining – broke one or other of their pledges.
Nonetheless, a third big mistake was not to deploy the abstention once it had been secured. Instead, the Lib Dems split in three. The division was not just among nameless backbenchers: Nick Clegg voted for higher fees; Tim Farron voted against; and Simon Hughes abstained. This division was the fourth big mistake because the lack of a single position, whatever it might be, blocked them from being able to portray a clear stance in favour of or opposed to the new fee cap.
Liberal Democrat Ministers sought to soften the blow by insisting on ill-prepared initiatives alongside higher fees. This was a fifth error because they turned out to be worthless. The National Scholarship Programme, for example, was such a waste of money that it was swiftly wound up. A Lib Dem demand to increase the new £21,000 student loan repayment threshold in line with earnings every year was also agreed. But the Conservative Government elected in May 2015 rescinded the commitment before it took effect so, in practical terms, it may as well never have been made.
A sixth mistake was for the Lib Dems to remain obsessed with fees to the exclusion of all else. They were so desperate to keep higher education off the political agenda that they blocked a wide-ranging 2011 white paper, Students at the Heart of the System, from becoming law.** New legislation would have allowed the regulation of higher education to catch up with the funding of higher education and blocking it stopped the Coalition from building a higher education programme that went beyond fees. By the time of the 2015 election, Liberal Democrats may have recognised this mistake because their manifesto, unlike those of the Conservative and Labour parties, promised new higher education legislation. This means that, at the 2010 election, they had made a promise they broke and, at the 2015 election, they made a promise they had already had an opportunity to implement.
Whatever the overall success of the Liberal Democrats in taming and shaping the Coalition, their record on higher education left something to be desired. Of course, all the main UK parties have veered wildly on tuition fees since the turn of the century so they are not alone: my Oxford Review paper makes criticisms of the other main parties too. But, between 2008 and 2012, Nick Clegg went from opposing his party’s no-fee policy to making it the centerpiece of his election campaign to distancing his party from it in the Coalition Programme to voting against it in Parliament and then apologising for the mess. That takes some beating.
This story is now history. But it is history worth retelling because it is a case study of educational policy failure. It is also highly topical because it remains an open question how Liberal Democrat leaders, including Tim Farron, will act when whipping their MPs and peers on tuition fee issues during the passage of the new Higher Education and Research Bill.
* To declare an interest, I came second to a Lib Dem in Cambridge, the place where Nick Clegg signed the NUS pledge in a blizzard of media coverage.
** To declare a second interest, I worked on this white paper.