Universally unhelpful

The coalition's consensus policies manage to benefit no one, says Alan Ryan

January 13, 2011

It would be easier to look at the pictures of bonfires in Parliament Square and be glad to be well out of it all, if only US politics were less painful. But seeing the Republican Party rewarded at the polls in November for two years of duplicity and mean-spiritedness was a miserable experience. It was much worse watching President Obama telling his supporters through gritted teeth that giving in to Republican blackmail and showering their multimillionaire paymasters with tax concessions was a lesser evil than seeing 2 million jobless people run out of unemployment benefits over Christmas.

What makes the whole business stick in one's throat is that the Republicans make a great song and dance about the need to rein in deficits, and their Tea Party wing makes a great song and dance about the wickedness of handouts and bailouts. Then they throw another trillion dollars at the people who created the current recession. And to get their own way, they are ready to hold hostage unemployed people who have found it impossible to locate any work in a largely jobless recovery from the horrors of two years ago.

Disgusting though it is, it is not inexplicable. The US political system encourages the wealthy to buy politicians; the arcane rules of the Senate reward obstruction and allow politicians to blackmail their own leaders, even the president. Nor is this Republican wickedness alone. Democratic senators nearly sank the healthcare bill a year ago by loading it with favours to special interests.

The behaviour of the UK government, on the other hand, becomes less intelligible by the moment. The UK political system is less corrupted by big money, and it doesn't reward obstruction. Where US senators do filibusters, the British House of Commons does guillotine motions. Where a president has to hope that Congress will take up his legislation in its own sweet time, a prime minister has complete control of the parliamentary timetable.

So why has a coalition government with a solid parliamentary majority concocted a scheme for the funding of higher education that serves none of the goals the partners to the coalition espoused before they came to power last May?

Forget the tripling of tuition fees for a moment. The argument for coalition governments - the argument against them for that matter - is that they seek consensus and compromise. The British electoral and parliamentary system has for decades been attacked as an elective dictatorship. A prime minister with an acquiescent party and a decent majority can do exactly what he or she wishes; it's an old complaint that British economic policy used to operate in fits and starts, with Labour reversing what the Tories did and vice versa. Coalitions are supposed to cure all that.

Yet here we have a coalition government that has managed to inflame students as no government has done since the days of the poll tax and the miners' strike, that has alienated the majority of the supporters of the Liberal Democrats, and that has disconcerted Conservatives inside and outside Parliament. There are all sorts of policies for higher education it could have put forward. Some would have saved at least as much money as the present scheme will, while others would have liberated individual institutions from the bureaucratic toils in which they currently labour.

Since there is no end to what most institutions would like to spend, not everyone would be completely happy, and it would be silly to pretend that there isn't a good deal of class warfare in the higher education system. But there's a vast area of consensus, too.

What have we had? A government that says it wants to liberate institutions to manage their own affairs endorses a Browne report that envisages a sort of super-Higher Education Funding Council for England dictating everything from numbers to admissions via governance, quality assurance and who knows what else. A government that says a graduate tax is unworkable tells students not to worry because their debts are really indistinguishable from a graduate tax. This does not score high marks for coherence.

If the point of tripling tuition fees is to avoid a graduate tax, it doesn't make much sense to say that it is really a graduate tax after all. The only thing the new system achieves is to shift higher education spending off the books - the accounting trick for which the coalition partners denounced Gordon Brown.

Then we get to the vulgar question of whether the government's scheme is or is not supposed to produce more resources for higher education. The answer is that on Monday universities are free to set their fees to bring in the money cut from the Hefce teaching grant and more on top; on Tuesday, they are to make themselves more efficient so they don't need more resources; on Wednesday, it is their patriotic duty to suffer the cuts that all public services will suffer. Meanwhile, we are told that the size of student "debt" is immaterial because it's only a small surcharge on income tax for those who can afford it; then we are told that some yet-to-be-announced system will be put in place to deter universities from charging high fees.

At least the Republican Party's economic incoherence benefits someone, even if it is mostly the undeserving rich. The coalition's treatment of higher education looks like pure and pointless incoherence, benefiting nobody and alienating everybody. So much for the virtues of coalition government.

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