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TEN YEARS ON: The politics behind the 2010 tuition fee reforms

  • 9 December 2020
  • By Aaron Porter

This blog was kindly contributed by Aaron Porter, President of the National Union of Students (NUS) in 2010/11. Aaron now has a portfolio of advisory and non-executive roles in the higher education sector. You can find Aaron on Twitter @AaronPorter

Today marks the 10-year anniversary of the vote in the House of Commons to increase full-time undergraduate fees in England from £3,290 to £9,000 per year. Last month, there was a flurry of articles which marked the anniversary of the protests and demonstrations that provided a backdrop to the decision in Westminster, including a piece I wrote looking at whether the debate made any difference.

But in all the analysis and review, much less attention has been paid to the politics behind the reforms, the twists and turns, how the vote was eventually passed and the lessons that can be learned. 

When we go back and look at the tuition fee debate of 2010 – two things stand out: the wave of student protests and the vote in Parliament when the decision squeezed through by just 21 votes. Yet the months running up to the vote in Parliament were arguably more remarkable than the final outcome.

Launch of the Browne Review (November 2009)

Several months before the 2010 general election, the Labour Government and the then Conservative Opposition commissioned John Browne (formerly Chief Executive of BP) on a cross-party basis to lead an independent review of higher education funding. The terms of reference for the review made clear it would examine the ‘balance of the contribution between taxpayers, students, graduates and employers’, rather than a blank piece of paper to examine how much a well-funded, high quality system required.

Browne was supported in his review by the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Birmingham (Sir David Eastwood), the then Vice-Chancellor of Aston University (Julia King, now Baroness Brown of Cambridge), Diane Coyle (a leading economist), Rajay Naik (a former Chair of the British Youth Council), Peter Sands (CEO of Standard Chartered) and Sir Michael Barber (at the time largely known to the higher education sector for driving New Labour’s reforms to schools, and long before the Office for Students was a twinkle in anyone’s eyes). Most review members were strong advocates of a prominent role for markets in the delivery of education and a stronger emphasis on metrics to judge performance, which promised to provide a glimpse of the likely direction of travel. The National Union of Students (NUS) when the review was commissioned under my predecessor as President, Wes Streeting, had lobbied to be part of the review group, but this request was turned down by Lord Mandelson. Wes Streeting and I had re-positioned NUS’s policy approach to higher education funding, away from scrapping tuition fees toward a graduate tax, which we felt was a credible contribution to the debate (including publishing a fully costed scheme) which ought to have been given serious consideration.

The scheduling of the review to begin under one government and report under another suited both major parties. Bluntly, both Labour and the Opposition Conservatives suspected that any changes they wanted to make would be unpopular with voters, and it suited them to refer to a review rather than any policy detail in their manifestoes. It was clear the Conservatives favoured a fee level higher than the £3k fee cap that existed, that Labour were split in a number of directions (including higher fees, a fee freeze, a graduate tax and a small number who wanted to abolish fees altogether). The Liberal Democrats were generally united, publicly at least, with a policy of scrapping tuition fees.

The timing of the review, the composition of the review group and the exclusion of the NUS as a formal part of the review group all combined to encourage us to take a more direct approach to try and influence the politics surrounding tuition fees. When I was elected as NUS President in April 2010 (just one month before the general election), it remained a source of disappointment that NUS and the student voice had been excluded from the review. But I also acknowledged it freed us to take a more direct campaigning approach, including issuing the NUS pledge, which we may not have been so easily able to do were we formally part of the review.

General election (May 2010) and the NUS pledge

The origins of the NUS pledge were a direct response to the Browne review, to secure clarity from each of the major political parties on where they stood specifically on tuition fees. The wording of the Pledge was simple and unambiguous, inviting candidates from all parties to ‘agree to vote against any increase in tuition fees during the next Parliament and pressure the government to introduce a fairer alternative.’ The response to the NUS pledge was extraordinary with over 1000 Prospective Parliamentary candidates agreeing to sign it including all Liberal Democrats, around half of Labour candidates and a handful of Conservatives. Ten years on, and three general elections later I am not aware of a campaign from any other organisation which had secured the sort of Parliamentary sign up that NUS got back in 2010.

The election of May 2010 stands out principally for marking the end of 13 years of (New) Labour Government, delivering the first hung Parliament for 36 years and the UK’s first coalition government in Westminster for 65 years. That there was no decisive winner was crucial for how the politics on tuition fees played out.

Had there been a clear majority for either the Conservatives or Labour, they would have had the votes in Parliament to pass through whatever funding reforms for higher education they wanted. But as it became clear, the votes of the 57 Liberal Democrat MPs would become vital to any potential government to pass legislation, I felt it would be inconceivable that such an unambiguous promise to voters could be broken. This was sheer naivety on my part.

The early months of the Coalition (May to November 2010)

As has been well documented, 5 days in May 2010 saw the formation of a Coalition government. For political and personal reasons, Nick Clegg favoured a deal with the Conservatives rather than keeping Gordon Brown in office. And within the walls of the Cabinet Office, the Coalition Agreement was drawn up which acted as a guiding light for the newly formed government. Eradicating the deficit was the overriding priority, but a composite of Conservative and Liberal Democrat policies formed the new government agenda. Although discussions to create the Coalition Agreement were had in private, it was clear that tuition fees (along with Trident replacement and electoral reform) were among a relatively small number of issues where it appeared that the major and minor parties forming the government had diametrically opposed views.

For higher education, the Coalition Agreement was significant for two principle reasons. Firstly, it acknowledged that the Liberal Democrats had stood on a manifesto to abolish fees and signed the NUS Pledge, so Lib Dem MPs were given explicit permission to ‘abstain from voting against any increase in tuition fees’. Second and perhaps more important it accepted much deeper cuts to public expenditure than any party had promised prior to the election and this fundamentally changed the goalposts for the Browne review. Instead of cuts in the region of 15% (like other Departments), it quickly became clear that the Business Department and the teaching budget specifically were to be subject to more dramatic cuts. In the end, the higher education teaching budget was cut by 80%. It was never clear to me whether Lord Browne volunteered to the Treasury that higher education was prepared to accommodate much larger cuts to the teaching budget than other Departments were being subject to, or whether the Treasury imposed these cuts and Lord Browne’s review was forced to accommodate them. Either way, in the face of an 80 per cent cut to the teaching budget it became clear that unless the sector could raise substantial new income it faced a serious crisis of funding.

Over the summer, it became clear that a political storm was brewing. The Browne review was moving towards a significant lifting of the cap (leaked stories that summer initially suggest that the cap would be removed altogether), and in response NUS under my leadership focused our attention on the 57 Liberal Democrats whom we calculated were going to be decisive given the Parliamentary arithmetic. If the Lib Dems stuck to the pledge or even stuck to the Coalition Agreement, and abstained on any increase, we failed to see a route in Parliament for the vote to pass. There was also the added twist that the government department charged with taking through any vote in Parliament was be the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) led by a Liberal Democrat, Vince Cable.

As pressure on the Lib Dems was mounting in August 2010, Vince Cable gave a public speech at London South Bank University personally advocating a graduate tax, and that Lord Browne’s review should give this serious consideration. Given this was NUS’s preferred position, I supported Cable’s speech privately and publicly, but it remained clear to me that the Browne review never felt it was a plausible outcome.

NUS did get the opportunity to engage with members of the review group. I found Lord Browne to be a highly impressive individual and he did seem to give us a hearing, but our graduate tax position could not be reconciled with the direction of his review. Later that summer when leaks were suggesting that there may be no fee cap whatsoever, I did suggest confidentially I would be willing to contemplate a higher fee of perhaps £5000 or £6000 a year and remember Nick Hillman of this parish (then a Special Adviser) convening a three-way meeting with myself, David Willetts and Steve Smith (then UUK President) to try and strike an agreement. And despite good intentions on all sides, the fee level that others wanted were too high for me to advocate credibly to an NUS membership, many of whom were already uncomfortable with the acknowledgement of any graduate contribution whatsoever. It always felt counterintuitive to me, that despite a more obvious ideological gap between myself and David Willetts than I had with Vince Cable, it was David who went out of his way to engage, to find areas where we did agree and was upfront and honest about our differences. This was in stark contrast to my personal dealings with Vince Cable, who I can only describe as ‘difficult’.

New Labour leadership

While the Coalition politics played out in the early months, the Labour Party embarked on a long summer campaign to elect a new leader. Front runner David Miliband began to lose steam as the contest progressed and as we know was pipped to the post by the finest of margins by his younger brother.

Of the five Labour leadership candidates (David and Ed Miliband, Ed Balls, Andy Burnham and Diane Abbott) there was a three-way split on tuition fees; which reflected the fact the Labour Party didn’t have a settled position initially. David Miliband was the only candidate who failed to be drawn on his own position during the campaign, which for me as a Labour Party member and President of NUS at the time meant it was impossible for me to support him, although clearly his politics was the one I aligned to more generally. In separate conversations I had with Ed Miliband, Ed Balls and Andy Burnham, each pledged unambiguous support for a graduate tax which was the NUS position and I decided to publicly support Ed Miliband. Diane Abbott preferred the abolition of fees altogether, although no detail was offered on how it would be funded. I can say with the benefit of hindsight that my decision to support Ed Miliband may well have been the right one for NUS’s cause, but was clearly not for Labour and I often wonder how different the last decade would have been had David triumphed. But Ed Miliband’s leadership of the Labour Party cemented their opposition to any increase in fees, and this simply piled even more pressure on the Lib Dems.

The publication of the Browne Review

After nearly 11 months, the Browne review was published on 12 October 2010. I was summoned to a meeting in the Prime Minister’s study hosted by David Cameron with Nick Clegg, Vince Cable, David Willetts, Ed Miliband, John Denham (the Shadow Business Secretary), together with Steve Smith (then UUK President), Richard Lambert (then CBI Director General), Sir Alan Langlands (HEFCE CEO) and Lord Browne, who presented his findings. His report did accommodate the 80% cut to the teaching budget, and in theory would have allowed universities to charge unlimited fees although a steadily increasing levy on fees above £6,000 would mean that universities would not have retained all fee income. Other changes never implemented included merging HEFCE, UCAS, the OIA and OFFA (OFFA and HEFCE did eventually merge in the creation of the Office for Students).

My favourite response was from Sir Alan Langlands who, when invited to give a response to the review, replied to the Prime Minister by asking whether his response should come ‘as a parent, or Chief Executive of HEFCE?’

It was clear from the meeting with the Prime Minister that Universities UK were going to endorse the proposals enthusiastically. I knew that lots of vice-chancellors had private concerns about lifting the fee cap, particularly if there was potential for a market with different universities charging different amounts. Ed Miliband who incidentally met David Cameron for the first time since becoming Labour leader at this gathering, said he would ‘study the findings closely’ but ruled out backing higher fees, and Vince Cable said very little – which was telling. My favourite response was from Sir Alan Langlands who, when invited to give a response to the review, replied to the Prime Minister by asking whether his response should come ‘as a parent, or Chief Executive of HEFCE?’ Rather surprised, Cameron said ‘probably as CEO of heff-sea’. Alan’s magnificent reply showing all the experience of a man who had dealt with successive Prime Ministers when Chief Executive of the NHS said, ‘probably wise, I doubt you’d want to hear what I think of the proposals as a parent’. And then went on to give an official response on HEFCE’s behalf. 

Between the middle of October and early December, the Coalition refined the details of the package they put to Parliament. The removal of a fee cap altogether was ditched and placed at £9k per year, but proposals to increase the repayment threshold from £15k to £21k (an important progressive measure) and adding a rate of interest in addition to RPI on student loan repayments were retained from Browne’s review.

Vince Cable, who in April had signed a pledge to vote against any increase in fees, in May had stood on a manifesto to abolish tuition fees, in August had given a speech backing a graduate tax, by November was being tasked with steering a £9k fee cap through Parliament. And even a couple of weeks before the vote he said he was still contemplating on abstaining on the vote he was proposing – which surely would have been a Parliamentary first. In the end, he did of course vote for the proposal.

The vote in Parliament (9 December 2010)

As has been documented elsewhere, November in particular saw a wave of student action in London and on university campuses. Some of it organised by the NUS, but much of it organised by student groups, students’ unions and students themselves.

Much of my time that month was spent meeting with Lib Dem MPs directly trying to convince them to vote against the Government. In all, I think I met with 35 Lib Dem MPs, and with a couple of honourable exceptions (Charles Kennedy and Menzies Campbell stood out), it was clear to me that most Liberal Democrats were far more concerned with preserving the Coalition, than honouring the pledges they had made to voters earlier that year. I tried to explain that the electorate would take a dim view of politicians who broke such explicit promises, particularly students who had voted for them in such large numbers. Some future incentives, such as the creation of a National Scholarship Programme and vague promises that ‘not all universities will charge the full £9,000 fee’ were used as bait to encourage Lib Dems, and it was clear to me others were bought off with promises of future ministerial roles.

Ultimately, the attempt to appeal to the better nature of the Lib Dems MPs was partially successful, but the vote still passed. On the day of the vote, Lib Dem MPs split three ways (27 backed the measure, 8 abstained and 21 rebelled, including Mike Crockart and Jenny Willott who both resigned junior Ministerial roles). If 11 more Lib Dems could have been persuaded to vote against, the proposal would have been defeated, the Coalition would have faced a vote of no-confidence after just 7 months and the passage of history might have been quite different.

Although the twists and turns behind the 2010 reforms were particularly dramatic, each tuition fee vote in Parliament has been notable in 1998 (£1,000 upfront fees) and then again in 2004 (£3,000 top up fees). The 2004 vote was the closest the Blair Government came to being defeated (passing by only 5 votes), closer even than the vote on the war in Iraq. Rightly or not, higher education funding and tuition fees specifically remain a divisive political issue. With the Government still prevaricating on a final response to Philp Augar’s review, another chapter to this book will likely still need to be written.  

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