CAT | Education
Angus and Mearns candidate Sanjay Samani has welcomed the major concessions to this year’s Scottish Budget secured by Liberal Democrat MSPs which will help Aberdeen, Angus and Dundee Colleges.
Concessions made to the Liberal Democrats include:
- Additional funding for FE bursaries of £15 million, spread across 2010-2011-12 to provide additional student support for current student numbers.
- Additional funding of £8 million in 2011-12 that would support an additional 1,200 college places and associated student support.
- 1,500 additional Modern Apprenticeships, including 500 places for the renewables sector, at a cost of £2 million
- 2,000 additional flexible training opportunities
“40,000 students across Scoltand were going to have their budgets slashed by the SNP Government, but this has been reversed thanks to the Lib Dems working hard for you at Holyrood.”
“This is a better budget than the SNP presented in November. It is better for young people in the Mearns wanting the skills they need to find jobs, helping our local economy. It is better for colleges in Angus, Dundee and Aberdeen, that will be able to provide more opportunities. And it is better for Angus and Mearns businesses that will be able to take on more apprentices.”
“It is also great to hear that the National Union of Students support what we have done.”
Commenting Liam Burns, President of NUS Scotland, said:
“This is great news and testament to the hard work of thousands of college students across Scotland and the Scottish Liberal Democrats. Students across colleges and universities have mobilised fantastically well, with over 32,000 letters and emails sent to MSPs on this issue.
“To win £15m college bursaries, and £8m for college places, in a budget which is being cut is a fantastic result. We hope this will now end the yearly ritual of college bursaries running out and end the threat of cuts to 40,000 of our poorest students.”
Over the last few weeks, I have been disappointed to hear fellow Liberal Democrats repeat the accusations of our opposition, and in particular certain portions of the national media who have been desperately trying to portray Lib Dems in a negative light. There is a continuing misconception that the Liberal Democrats sacrificed too much to the Conservatives during coalition negotiations. Here’s the real story of what we have achieved in Government.
This document is already 3 months old, so the list has grown since then, but it is a good starting point.
After the first TV debate during the General Election campaign, our opponents recognised that Nick Clegg was our strongest asset. Since the morning of the second debate, there has been a sustained attack on him personally and on the reputation of the party as a whole. Even Ed Milliband has resorted to personal attacks on Nick Clegg. It is disgraceful, gutter politics. Unfortunately, if you throw enough mud, it will eventually stick.
Nick Clegg is the antithesis of Teflon Tony Blair. His record, as demonstrated above, is one to be proud of. I for one, do not think I could cope with excrement posted through my door, my effigy being burnt, being called a traitor and receiving death threats and still come out fighting the way that Nick Clegg did at the Sheffield Lib Dem Conference.
I cannot agree with those in the party that take the attitude that they are in politics to fight Conservatism as a result of Thatcher’s legacy. Saying that we would only go into a coalition with a discredited, illiberal, economically incompetent Labour Party would doom our party into subservience.
I came into politics and joined the Lib dems to make a difference on issue that I cared about, whether it was the environment, children’s welfare or civil liberties. I believe in the values of the party, that local people know best about their area, that solutions should last and that everyone deserves a fair chance.
Those values, issues and policies are now being successfully implemented in Government, and it is a record that we should all be proud of.
Ewan Hoyle, a prominent Lib Dem campaigner has posted a blog post on his take on Liberal Democrat back bench MP’s reaction to the Browne Report and the Coalition plans for higher education funding.
Ewan’s post is a little too emotive and expletive laden for my tastes, but he makes some key point about the hidden nuggets with the Coalition proposals. In the post, Ewan writes:
I was going to call this blog post “Failing to see the wood for the fees”. Deferred fees are not the determinant of whether young people can support themselves through university. Maintenance funding determines whether students can feed and house themselves through their studies and maintenance funding will RISE following the implementation of government proposals. MORE students from poorer backgrounds will be able to attend higher education…
One of the key issues pointed out to me by Malcolm Bruce MP at the weekend is that most school age students and their parents do not realise that there have not been any up front fees since Labour introduced top up fees many years ago. The system of payment for University has been a graduate contribution for quite some time. I have to be honest and admit that I had not known that myself.
Clearly there is concern about saddling graduates with significant levels of debt is less than ideal. The proposals mean that they will have that debt for up to 30 years and could effectively pay an addition 9% tax. However along with Ewan’s points above, the raising the threshold for paying back the debt to £21,000 is a helpful move.
This doesn’t take anything away from fact that the Liberal Democrat policy was to phase out tuition fees in favour of funding through general taxation. But buried within the details of the proposals are nuggets that suggest that students from poorer background will find it easier to go to University initially, albeit facing higher levels of debt afterwards, but hopefully in a position to be able to afford those debts.
The emotional response, gross simplification of the issues and vilification of Lib Dem MPs, particularly Nick Clegg do not enlighten the debate. They have made it very difficult to fully understand the ramifications of the proposals.
What I can confidently say is that Nick Clegg has not become a different person, with different values. He will have faced the prospect of unlimited fees and applied his Liberal Democrat values to an impossible choice. The result is something less than ideal but grimly, probably the best deal that we could get for students, given that the Conservatives and Labour would have supported unlimited fees.
In the wake of the Browne report, I felt that Nick Clegg, Vince Cable and Lib Dem ministers should have stuck to the coalition agreement and, at the very least, abstained on the issue of tuition fees.
I wrote a personal letter to Nick Clegg on the issue and in it, I wrote:
For me, the overriding theme of this year’s election was public distrust of politicians. If we go back on our pledge to vote against any rise in tuition fees, we risk convincing everyone that we are no better than other politicians. Fundamentally it is an issue of trust.
Our shift on policy from scrapping tuition fees, to phasing them out, to voting against a rise in this parliament, is pragmatic given economic conditions. To accept a major rise in tuition fees, is a massive change in our policy.
Why negotiate an opt-out to abstain in the Coalition Agreement, only to abandon it without consulting our MPs and the wider party?
In yesterday’s post for the Lib Dem Voice, Jo Swinson went some way to answering my concerns:
Of course, in the coalition agreement Liberal Democrats had negotiated an opt-out – an opportunity to abstain on the issue. We could have left it to the Conservatives to present plans for unlimited fees, with no regard for a progressive payment system, and no requirements for top universities to do better on access for poorer students. Instead, we got involved to make a Liberal Democrat difference, and create a fairer system. That’s what Vince had delivered.
Faced with the prospect of unlimited fees from the Browne report. Lib Dem ministers were faced with an impossible choice. Abstain or rebel, in futility, to see unlimited fees imposed. Or renege on their NUS pledges to get the best deal possible. Not a very good deal, admittedly, but the best deal that could be achieved given the Browne report and Conservative and Labour policy.
Were there any alternatives?
Stick to the coalition agreement and abstain: Conservatives would have implemented the Browne Report in full, with no cap on fees and no concessions for poorer students.
Rebel and vote against the proposals: Conservatives and Labour push through the Browne Report in full, with no cap on fees and no concessions for poorer students. Conservative MPs would derail Liberal Democrat policies in parliament. Either the Lib Dems limp to next general election as a weak, ineffective coalition partner or the coalition collapses with Lib Dems getting the blame for not sticking to the agreement.
Negotiate a rejection of the Browne report, or at least water it down more: How would we fund that from Lib Dem spending priorities? Cut the pupil premium? £10k income tax threshold? Green Deal? Child Benefit for 16-18 year olds? The AV referendum is not an option; it will not save any money.
Negotiate a better position in the Coalition Agreement: The uncapped fees suggestion in the Browne Report was fairly unexpected. The general consensus was that the coalition agreement was a major victory for the Lib Dems. Getting a better deal on tuition fees would have required foresight into Browne’s proposals and giving up on some of our other policies. Areas where we got the least concessions were where Labour agreed with Conservatives, so they did not need our support to get their way. Voting reform, Trident and tuition fees are the best examples of this.
Spin the Browne report: Imagine if instead of saying, “no upfront tuition fees”, we had said that we are scrapping tuition fees and replacing it with a graduate contribution. The level of graduate contribution can be decided by Universities. Remainder the same as yesterday’s announcement. That could actually have worked, with detractors having to work hard to explain this is the same as tuition fees, instead of forcing us to explain “no upfront fees”. Frankly, we should have done this, much as I hate spin.
Do not sign up to NUS pledge: This would have required amazing foresight into the Browne Report, General Election results and Coalition negotiations. The NUS pledge was actually a weakening of our policy from phasing out tuition fees, which was controversial enough, to only committing to not increasing them.
Maintain central government university funding, but decrease the number of University places, as proposed by Duncan Borrowman: I largely agree with the sentiment of Duncan’s post. However his suggestion that there be more vocational post school training still has to be funded. At just £55 per week for those on modern apprenticeships, that is almost £3,000 per year. Whilst that is less than funding a University place, the savings will not be that great and it is not clear that central funding for this would be sustainable either.
Nick Clegg and Vince Cable have been accused of being sell-outs, traitors, “Tories” and been called on to resign. Today those slurs have spread to Jo Swinson. Lib Dem members and activists throwing around those insults should be ashamed of themselves.
When I felt strongly that Nick and Vince had got this decision wrong, I wrote a private letter and only stated a simple re-affirment of my NUS pledge. I wish many of my colleagues had done the same, rather than wash our dirty linen quite so publicly.
Some of those accusing Nick Clegg of being a “Tory” point to his desire to ditch our tuition fees policy before the election. They say that the way he has embraced the Browne report is a demonstration that he always wanted to raise fees and is using the state of the economy as an excuse to get his way.
The reality is, I think, that Nick and Vince have felt for quite some time that the tuition fees policy is unsustainable. They have not been able to convince the wider party of this and were left with our policy to fund anyway. Even the switch to phasing out tuition fees was seen as a betrayal. Having reviewed everything above, I wonder whether the party should have listened to what they were saying and we might have avoided the current situation.
The abuse being hurled at Jo Swinson today is pretty disgusting. Faced with the alternatives above, Jo could simply have kept quiet and followed the ministerial line and let Nick and Vince take the flak. Instead she has stuck her head above the parapet and tried to explain the position. That requires a tremendous amount of courage.
Are Nick, Vince and Jo sell outs? Toxic Tories in disguise? Or are they realistic, feet on the ground politicians trying to make the most of an impossibly difficult situation? Given everything else I know about the three of them, I feel the latter is far, far, more likely.
If I have interpreted the situation and the motivations correctly, not only are they faced with an impossible decision, they are not free to explain it the way I have above, beyond the paragraph I’ve quoted from Jo’s post.
So the question I have for fellow Liberal Democrats, is what would you do if you were in the same position as our ministers? Would you choose integrity and principles to retain trust in the party, but sacrifice any hope of provisions for poorer students in Government Higher Education policy? Or would you try to salvage something for poorer student from the wreckage of the Browne report and Tory and Labour policy and sacrifice your NUS pledge?
My answer? Frankly, I am struggling to answer. However, I realise that I have more admiration, sympathy and respect for Jo, Vince and particularly Nick now, than I did even at the height of the “I Agree With Nick” and #NIckCleggsFault roller coaster during the election.