Clegg and Cable at odds over tuition fees defence

Clegg blames the public finances, Cable blames the coalition agreement. Here's why the difference ma

Vince Cable has caused some consternation this morning with his claim that the Lib Dems haven't broken their promises on tuition fees. The coalition's "economic guru" (in the words of David Cameron) argues that since his party didn't win the election they are not bound by their manifesto pledges.

He told The Politics Show:

We didn't break a promise. We made a commitment in our manifesto, we didn't win the election. We then entered into a coalition agreement, and it's the coalition agreement that is binding upon us and which I'm trying to honour

His argument is not without merit, although it ignores an obvious alternative: not to enter coalition in the first place. The Lib Dems could have entered a confidence and supply agreement with the Tories and kept their election pledge to vote against any increase in tuition fees.

But it remains a more plausible defence than Nick Clegg's claim that the state of the public finances meant the pledge was impossible to keep. He recently told the BBC:

At the time I really thought we could do it. I just didn't know, of course, before we came into government, quite what the state of the finances were.

This argument, as I've pointed out before, is remarkably dishonest. The Lib Dems were fully aware of the state of the public finances before the election and the UK, as the sixth largest economy in the world, can easily afford to fund free higher education through general taxation.

In public expenditure terms, the UK currently spends just 0.7 per cent of its GDP on higher education, a lower level than France (1.2 per cent), Germany (0.9 per cent), Canada (1.5 per cent), Poland (0.9 per cent) and Sweden (1.4 per cent). Even the United States, where students make a considerable private contribution, spends 1 per cent of its GDP on higher education - 0.3 per cent more than the UK does.The coalition's decision to triple tuition fees was a political choice, not an economic necessity.

But more significantly, Clegg's argument suggests that even a hypothetical Lib Dem government would have been forced to raise tuition fees. By contrast, Cable's argument suggests that only the coalition agreement prevented party policy being fulfilled. The abiding impression is that while Cable still believes in the pledge, Clegg couldn't wait for an excuse to drop it.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Why Theresa May won't exclude students from the net migration target

The Prime Minister believes the public would view the move as "a fix". 

In a letter to David Cameron shortly after the last general election, Philip Hammond demanded that students be excluded from the net migration target. The then foreign secretary, who was backed by George Osborne and Sajid Javid, wrote: "From a foreign policy point of view, Britain's role as a world class destination for international students is a highly significant element of our soft power offer. It's an issue that's consistently raised with me by our foreign counterparts." Universities and businesses have long argued that it is economically harmful to limit student numbers. But David Cameron, supported by Theresa May, refused to relent. 

Appearing before the Treasury select committee yesterday, Hammond reignited the issue. "As we approach the challenge of getting net migration figures down, it is in my view essential that we look at how we do this in a way that protects the vital interests of our economy," he said. He added that "It's not whether politicians think one thing or another, it's what the public believe and I think it would be useful to explore that quesrtion." A YouGov poll published earlier this year found that 57 per cent of the public support excluding students from the "tens of thousands" target.

Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary, has also pressured May to do so. But the Prime Minister not only rejected the proposal - she demanded a stricter regime. Rudd later announced in her conference speech that there would be "tougher rules for students on lower quality courses". 

The economic case for reform is that students aid growth. The political case is that it would make the net migration target (which has been missed for six years) easier to meet (long-term immigration for study was 164,000 in the most recent period). But in May's view, excluding students from the target would be regarded by the public as a "fix" and would harm the drive to reduce numbers. If an exemption is made for one group, others will inevitably demand similar treatment. 

Universities complain that their lobbying power has been reduced by the decision to transfer ministerial responsibility from the business department to education. Bill Rammell, the former higher education minister and the vice-chancellor of Bedfordshire, said in July: “We shouldn’t assume that Theresa May as prime minister will have the same restrictive view on overseas students that Theresa May the home secretary had”. Some Tory MPs hoped that the net migration target would be abolished altogether in a "Nixon goes to China" moment.

But rather than retreating, May has doubled-down. The Prime Minister regards permanently reduced migration as essential to her vision of a more ordered society. She believes the economic benefits of high immigration are both too negligible and too narrow. 

Her ambition is a forbidding one. Net migration has not been in the "tens of thousands" since 1997: when the EU had just 15 member states and the term "BRICS" had not even been coined. But as prime minister, May is determined to achieve what she could not as home secretary. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.