Leader: Past is not for changing

April 15, 2005

Higher education may not yet be an important topic in this election, but its role in the last one is still causing controversy (page 7). The question has been asked more than once this week whether there is any point in manifesto pledges if they carry as little weight as Labour's 2001 promise not to introduce top-up fees. The Labour defence, from Ruth Kelly and Alan Johnson, has been that circumstances changed and the Government had to respond. Ministers were obliged to bring order to higher education funding and safeguard the otherwise rocky future of universities.

This hardly reflects much credit on the Labour Government of 1997-2001. It had received the Dearing report, introduced flat-rate tuition fees and set out its plans for the future in the "landmark" Greenwich speech.

Vice-chancellors, unions and commentators inside and outside higher education had ceaselessly drawn attention to the financial problems of the sector. What changed between 2001 and the following year, when plans for top-up fees were developed, was the Education Secretary. David Blunkett was a sufficiently powerful opponent to keep them at bay, Estelle Morris (while still an opponent) was not. By the time Charles Clarke took office, the die was cast, even if the details remained up for negotiation. Nothing else had changed that could not have been foreseen.

The 2001 election commitment on top-up fees was a political mistake that led, with indecent haste, to a moral dilemma for many in the party. But Labour was entitled to change its collective mind as long as it did not raise fees in the Parliament covered by the manifesto - which it did not.

What it cannot do is rewrite history to justify the decision.

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