The Lib Dems are rightly the focus of ire today and for this session, even if one sees it as deliberative democracy in action. However, the list of parties who’ve got it wrong on fees is much longer than that, and it seems unfair to let the others off the hook.

1989 protestsThe Tories were the first to attack access to higher education. In 1989 they began whittling the grant system for poor students away and replacing it gradually with loans, and a generation redoubled their loathing of them.

Adam Tinworth has some classic protest pictures from that period here.

The new New Labour Government in 1997 then squarely broke a pledge to students and their landslide voters. Their manifesto said: “The improvement and expansion needed cannot be funded out of general taxation. […] The costs of student maintenance should be repaid by graduates on an income-related basis, from the career success to which higher education has contributed.” A graduate tax, in other words, roughly equivalent to Labour’s current plans.

1997 protestsBut Blunkett and Blair then used the Dearing report to bring in fees and abolish grants (despite the latter having specifically been against Dearing’s recommendations), and this move became their first major let-down in office. As noted here before, the newly oppositional Tories fought the proposals alongside non-NUS universities, although I was advised by a senior Tory MP “never to trust us if we get back into government”.

Enough space has been spent pointing out the Lib Dems’ inconsistency here and elsewhere, and I won’t add to that, except to say that anyone unsure of the scale of their hypocrisy should watch the start of this ironically-titled broadcast very carefully.

The SNP have historically been supportive of students, but even here there are straws in the wind suggesting a shift. They have a green paper coming out next week on higher education, and Mike Russell gave an ambiguous quote in advance. “What we won’t do is have upfront tuition fees”, he said, before promising “major changes”. Given that we currently have no fees at all in Scotland, thanks to a vote by SNP, Green & (ironically) Lib Dem MSPs, students would be forgiven for anxiety about what those “major changes” might be. A return to fees paid later, the old Lib Dem/Labour position? A new graduate tax, however hard that would be to shoehorn into the current powers of the Scottish Parliament?

2010 protestsJust to return to the principles, education that’s free for all is not a holiday camp perk for the middle classes. Neither fees nor an additional graduate tax are required so students pay society back – if they earn more, they pay more income tax back, and graduates in employment contribute through their work, whether it’s for the private sector, for voluntary organisations, or for the public sector. That’s what Labour’s 97 manifesto said, effectively.

Access to higher education should be on the basis of academic potential and desire to attend and learn, not income level, and anyone who argues that no-one has been deterred by fees is simply wrong in fact. That’s not just the right for individual students – it’s also what the country needs. It’s an unequivocal social good for the brightest and keenest to go on to further and higher education, irrespective of their wealth or their attitude to indebtedness.

As a St Andrews graduate, I certainly knew plenty of people who went to university because their parents were rich and it was expected of them, and I also know plenty of people who didn’t go to university because the opposite was true. That was the era before fees, when it was bad enough already.

All three of the Westminster parties of government have got this wrong in the past. Much as it would be in the Greens’ short-term interest to be the only party committed to free higher education based on academic ability, not to pay, I do hope the SNP won’t go the same way next week.

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