Students, prepare your strategic campaign for the battle of the fees

Trying to make the Lib Dems keep their pre-election pledge on tuition should be just one tactic in the NUS' arsenal, recommends Ivor Gaber

November 25, 2010

Credit: James Fryer


Client: National Union of Students

Consultant: Ivor Gaber Associates

Following your instructions, in the light of the events of 10 November, to reconsider urgently the National Union of Students' tuition fee communications and campaigning strategy, we are pleased to present the following recommendations.

The demonstration two weeks ago was a success, to the extent that the NUS was able to show that it had a significant body of student opinion enthusiastically supporting its tuition fees campaign. Clearly some damage was done by the violence at the Conservative Party headquarters at Millbank, although it is difficult to assess the extent to which this has "polluted the brand" (in Philip Gould's memorable phrase about New Labour); but given that the student "brand" has never been particularly burnished, this is probably of limited consequence.

However, the current message about tuition fees is coming over as rather one-dimensional. The message the public is hearing - although not necessarily the only one being sent - is: "The fees increase is not fair. Students feel betrayed, particularly by Liberal Democrat MPs who conned them into voting for them at the last election. Now they want revenge."

Hence your decision to launch the campaign to target Liberal Democrat MPs in vulnerable seats. This message may resonate with current and potential students and also provide an outlet for student dissatisfaction with the Lib Dems, but it is not necessarily the best course of action - at least at this stage.

The increase in fees has not yet passed into legislation and there is still a possibility that it may not happen. The coalition agreement gave the Lib Dems the right to abstain from the vote on tuition fees if they found the Browne Review unacceptable. If they were to be persuaded to trigger this agreement and all Lib Dem MPs abstained, the increase would still go through.

However, if only the Lib Dem ministerial team abstained and more than half the backbenchers could be persuaded instead to vote against the rise, and all the other opposition parties followed suit, then the tuition fee increase would be blocked.

Hence, the NUS has to ask itself whether it makes sense, at this stage, to launch an all-out assault on Liberal Democrat MPs when they just may be the ones who could come riding to the students' rescue.

If not, is there anything the NUS can do to keep the Lib Dems onside - and even precipitate a backbench revolt?

The answer is yes, or more realistically, possibly. For although Lib Dem ministers may be enthusiastically championing the fee increase, backbenchers are nervously shuffling their feet and many party activists are having grave doubts.

We would urge the NUS to consider targeting this group, and attempt to persuade them to pressure their MPs to vote against the increase. That pressure should make the case on three levels: that increasing tuition fees is morally wrong; that it will be bad in the long term for UK Plc, creating skills shortages in vital areas; and, most importantly of all (for them), their MP could lose his or her seat.

If Lib Dem activists are to be a key target, then the campaign aimed at unseating or symbolically "recalling" their MPs could backfire, because the activists may well perceive it as an outsider- (possibly Labour-) inspired attack on their party and MPs. In any case, it is always possible to resurrect this tactic if the vote does go through.

On another front, the campaign's tone and target audiences must be broadened further. Successful campaigns have both emotional and intellectual appeal. The former has been catered for by the talk of hardship, fairness and less well-off students being deterred from aspiring to higher education. The intellectual argument could be broached by finding allies in the business community who are prepared to say that they have concerns about possible future skill shortages resulting from the increase in tuition fees. Should such allies be found, then these messages should be reflected back to the business community as well as to the public in general and MPs in particular.

One final point. Consideration should be given to changing the layout of the NUS website's home page, which is topped by a bright red banner featuring a clenched fist and the slogan "Demand Extra". This may be a clever marketing device to promote the NUS discount card, but to a member of the public seeking further information about the students' case, it could be read very differently.

I trust this report is helpful to you in your deliberations.

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