Why the issue of tuition fees will not go away

Average institutions charging top-rate fees will prove a continuing headache for the government.

Oxford's announcement that it will charge £9,000 for undergraduate tuition fees is no surprise. It is the fourth university to confirm that it will charge the maximum amount, after Cambridge, Exeter and Imperial College London.

These announcements will not worry the coalition. All have an excellent reputation. What will concern the government, however, is a constant trickle of lesser universities announcing that they, too, will charge the maximum amount for tuition.

The Lib Dems have already gone on the defensive. Nick Clegg said this weekend: "I cannot think of anything more absurd than a university saying, to prove that they can offer a good education, they can whack up the price to £9,000. They are not Harrods." He is right – it is absurd. But what did he expect?

There is a market in higher education – one heavily weighted in favour of universities. Every single university in the UK has more applicants than places. Vince Cable's threat that "at some point, a university committee will destroy their own student base unless they are very, very careful" is as empty as they come. Universities call the shots when it comes to admitting students. They will not charge £9,000 to show off – they will do it because they can.

Even average universities are vastly oversubscribed. According to Ucas, the University of Chester had almost ten applicants per place in 2010. Kingston University had 44,083 applicants, of whom only 7,524 were accepted. Even the University of Lincoln has nearly five applicants for every place. Unless there is an improbably large drop in demand for higher education, practically any university in the UK could charge the full £9,000 and still fill every single place.

This leaves the coalition in a pickle, with little recourse other than to appeal to a university's sense of what's right and fair, as the government's universities minister, David Willetts, did last month. "Unless universities can prove that there will be a commensurate and very significant improvement in the education on offer, it is difficult to see how such an increase could ever be justified," Willetts claimed. It could, however, be justified by pointing to the 80 per cent cut in the teaching grant that the coalition introduced.

Justified or not, raising the cap and then castigating universities that decide to raise their fees accordingly is policy at its most incoherent. The government failed to make a convincing case for higher fees and is now attempting to compensate for its failure by intimidating universities. The coalition's policy is a mess. Its problems with higher education are not over yet.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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