Lib Dem leaders urged to rethink White Paper

Hughes issues plea to win back students' trust as party conference aims to overcome its 'sense of bereavement' over tuition fees. Simon Baker reports from Birmingham

September 22, 2011

Credit: Jeff Mitchell/Getty

Liberal Democrats in the coalition government must listen to concerns about the higher education White Paper and not "just go on regardless" if they want to win back the confidence of students, according to the party's deputy leader.

Simon Hughes (pictured) said this should include keeping a close eye on "clearly controversial" plans to allow free competition for students with A-level grades of AAB or better to ensure that they do not harm social mobility.

Speaking at the party's annual conference in Birmingham this week, he said the end of the White Paper consultation should be used as an opportunity to "rethink" some aspects of policy.

"The first thing we have to do is be willing to listen to the responses to the White Paper and respond to them and not just go on regardless," he told a fringe meeting held by the 1994 Group of universities.

"There is an opportunity be able to pick up the good ideas and to rethink some of the things that may be controversial."

He said the AAB plans - widely criticised for having the potential to work against students from poor backgrounds - were not "fixed in stone" and needed "to be rethought a bit in terms of detail".

"The advice ministers were given...was that on balance (the policy) would be helpful in opening up access, but there was a fairly robust debate about how strong the evidence base was on that," he said.

"It will be tried, but it is not fixed in stone. It is very much something that is open to review as soon as it's clear what the effects are."

He also said he had been "intellectually persuaded" that the proposal to impose a penalty for the early repayment of student loans - a provision pushed for by Lib Dems in the coalition - was based on the wrong "logic and rationale".

His comments came at a conference where the Lib Dems desperately tried to move on from the row over tuition fees, chiefly by avoiding all mention of the issue.

Vince Cable, the business secretary, made scant reference to higher education in his speech - and what little there was focused on apprenticeships.

Torrid year

Elsewhere there were signs that the party, which still officially opposes tuition fees, was starting to put its torrid year behind it.

Delegates overwhelmingly supported a motion asking the government to review its policy on when part-time students should pay back fee loans.

Under current coalition plans, part-time students face paying back loans three and a half years after starting courses if they are earning above £21,000, regardless of whether they have finished their studies.

Belinda Brooks-Gordon, the academic and Lib Dem councillor who brought the motion, said tackling such an issue would help the party to overcome its "sense of bereavement".

"The subject that the party feels passionate about is higher education. You could feel the passion in that room; it is still there," said Dr Brooks-Gordon, reader in psychology and social policy at Birkbeck, University of London.

The party's official policy to phase out tuition fees will itself now be the subject of a wider mid-term review, and some clearly hope the language of the debate will change over the next couple of years.

Lib Dem peer Baroness Brinton said that, as students start to understand the funding system properly, it might become easier to win back trust. "I have always been more in favour of a graduate tax, and what we have got is the closest to a graduate tax," she said.

But others were more blunt about the current policy.

Baroness Sharp of Guildford, another Lib Dem peer, told a fringe meeting that the current system was piling up a taxpayer liability for future generations.

And Tom Wood, chair of Liberal Youth, insisted that further pressure could be put on the party's senior leadership. "If the (higher education) White Paper starts shaping up in a way that we don't like, then there will be more motions. We are not afraid to tell Nick (Clegg) when we think he is getting it wrong."

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