The return of chilly, misty mornings, shorter days and Question Time on Thursday nights means that the annual hullabaloo of the party conference season is just around the corner. This year, the Syria crisis will no doubt dominate debate, but this will not mask the fact that with just 20 months until the 2015 general election, we are now at a critical juncture in domestic politics. For the past three years the parties have been warring over past choices: bailing out the banks, clamping down on immigration and, of course, tripling tuition fees. But now it is time for the party leaders to look to the future.
Given the trouble tuition fees caused at the 2010 election, this may mean that the big three parties steer clear of proposing further reform for higher education.
For nobody is this more true than the Liberal Democrats, who, unbelievably, are still hamstrung by an official policy to phase out tuition fees. As we report this week, there will be a showdown over this toxic issue at the Lib Dem conference as members are asked to support a motion backing the current system of £9,000 fees. Given that the Lib Dems actually give delegates a vote on policy, such support is far from guaranteed: the debate could simply lead to more damaging headlines for the party. However, provided Nick Clegg et al can shrug off the fees millstone, the same motion also addresses key questions facing the academy, including postgraduate funding and university regulation. It would be a shame if further soul-searching over fees overshadows debate on these issues.
The Conservatives know that their goal of partially liberalising the market for students has at least been tried (if not yet fully tested)
The Conservatives, meanwhile, will be content not to upset the fees applecart further while knowing that their goal of partially liberalising the market for students has at least been tried (if not yet fully tested). Instead, the Tories are likely to take a greater interest in work being done by academics that looks at student loan repayment rates by institution attended. If such data do become available, they will present the holy grail for many on the Right – the ability to reduce access to taxpayer-subsidised student loans for those universities they feel are failing to prepare students for the world of work.
Labour is arguably under the greatest pressure. While its 2011 vow to lower the fee cap to £6,000 was never supposed to be a 2015 election pledge, it has been heavily scrutinised as such and any actual manifesto commitment will now be judged against it. The party may decide to back £9,000 fees on the grounds that its previous idea would be too costly to implement, but this would still be viewed as backtracking. Given that a graduate tax seems to have fallen out of favour with the Lib Dems, a bolder move would be for Labour to adopt that proposal. But will voters really be swayed by more changes they don’t understand when figures for university applications are on the up again? The problem for Labour is that if the answer (as seems likely) is “no”, it could be left with nowhere to go.
This would leave all three parties acquiescing to the current system of £9,000 fees, giving voters no alternative. Such homogeneity is deeply worrying for those who see the student loans system as a ticking time bomb because of write-off costs – a bomb that could go off with devastating effect to the public finances in the years to come.