Few people like to criticise their own profession, so it goes against the grain for me – as a journalist – to conclude that the media has behaved pretty despicably over its reporting of the tuition fees issue. But I feel no other conclusion is possible.
OK, so we as a political party haven’t covered ourselves in glory over this one either, but the blatant misinformation emanating from even some of the more respected political reporters doesn’t reflect well on them.
Too many have delighted in talking about the Lib Dems’ ‘U-turn’ (or ‘dramatic U-turn’ or ‘spectacular U-turn’ – why be happy with a slight misrepresentation when a melodramatic one will do?). A U-turn is when you change your mind, which to me isn’t a crime, but that’s beside the point because it’s not the case here – this is a concession to enable a coalition to be formed, but of course that doesn’t make for such a good story.
It’s all part of a vicious learning curve for us Lib Dems, who have enjoyed – in the words of our ex-cabinet minister David Laws – ‘the joys of easy opposition’ for too long. We’ve been in power at council level, much of it in coalition with Labour and the Conservatives, but now we’re in power (jointly) at national level, and taking all the flak for it.
The result is that people who voted Lib Dem at the general election because of our tuition fees stance feel betrayed by us, when actually they have achieved something with their vote.
Both Labour and the Tories went into the election advocating a fee-based university funding model, while we fought for the principle of no tuition fees for first degrees. Realistically, we were always going to have to compromise on that with just 23% of the vote, but we have used what leverage we got from our voters to argue for university education to remain free at the point of learning, and for the payback mechanism to kick in only at a graduate's salary of £21,000. That’s a major concession that wouldn’t have happened if the Conservatives (or Labour for that matter) had been governing on their own.
But that has barely been reported, with the result that children from lower-income families could be scared off from going to university. Don’t blame us for that – blame the media for a scare campaign perpetrated because they were happier taking cheap shots at the coalition than in reporting the issue accurately.
But by far the biggest omission from the media reporting is one that goes to the heart of why we are a progressive party.
When money is tight, you have to decide where to spend it and where not to. The same government department that deals with higher (university) education deals with further education, and there are a lot more of our youngsters who need help at 16 than at 18. Many who leave school at 16 have a reading age of 11, so further education is something of a safety net for them. The further education sector also embraces a lot more children from lower income families than the higher education sector.
So, after 13 years of watching the party that supposedly represents the least affluent presiding over the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer, we now have a Liberal Democrat business secretary, Vince Cable, who has decided to put what little money he has for post-16 education into those who, by and large, need it more, and to ask those who, by and large, need it less to pay something back when they’re earning enough to do so.
Yet we’re taking stick for this, not just because of the media, but because the student body is eloquent and loud enough to make its case more powerfully than those who stand to benefit from further education at age 16. But that doesn’t mean what we’re doing is wrong.
I don’t like the package of higher education funding that was agreed in the fractious Commons vote, even though I’d have voted for it if I’d been an MP. I hate the way higher education is going to be ‘marketised’. But faced with the choices, I think the Lib Dems have pushed the government in a socially progressive direction, which is what our role in government should be.