Nick Clegg’s apology for breaking the Lib Dems’ tuition fees pledge (or rather, for adopting it in the first place) was an attempt at candour, so it’s unfortunate that he’s still misleading voters over why it was abandoned. Clegg’s explanation was that there was “no money around” but, to take only the most recent example, we learned yesterday that the banks paid out £13bn in bonuses last year. In some parts of the economy, at least, there is plenty of money around – the pledge could have been met through progressive taxation. In addition, even in these austere times, the government spent £693bn in 2011, a small fraction of which could have been used to freeze fees. It would be more honest to say that there was money around but the Lib Dems chose not to spend it on universities (we now know that they didn’t even push for the pledge to be kept during the coalition negotiations).
What makes Clegg’s statement even more disingenuous is that, in the short-term, the decision to raise tuition fees won’t save the government any money. Indeed, for the reminder of this parliament at least, the reforms will cost it more, not less. The new fees only came into effect this year, which means repayments won’t begin until 2015 for a three-year course. In the intervening period, the government will be forced to pay out huge amounts in maintenance loans and tuition-fee loans. Clegg wants you to believe that the decision to triple fees from £3,000 to £9,000 was a deficit reduction measure but, as the numbers show, it was nothing of the sort.