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The permanent background music to any news concerning students at the moment is the rise in tuition fees. It’s swept over everything from grading systems to Christmas dinners. There’s a general feeling of sympathy for those who will come after our £3,290 generation and the amount they’ll have to pay.
The Liberal Democrats have been very good at playing up this sympathy, portraying themselves as victims of circumstance. In a coalition their hands are tied, they don’t have the mandate to phase out tuition fees and, actually, having now discovered the state of the country’s finances, that’s probably not such a good idea after all. The point which Nick Clegg and co seem to be forgetting is that their mandate wasn’t solely based on their manifesto. It was based on the pledges they signed, which was simply to vote against a rise in fees.
The mandate for that still stands. every student who voted a Lib Dem in off the back of seeing them standing, pledge in hand vowing to vote against a rise in fees has a right to feel cheated. It makes you question the validity of the democratic system that the will of the people – and ideals of a party – can be overridden so quickly. It is little wonder students are taking to the street. Democracy has failed to help them achieve their end, so why should they wait five years for the next ballot box to come along before voicing their anger? Voting evidently makes no difference, so maybe a bit of civil unrest will.
Outside the sympathy felt by one set of students towards the next, the debate on tuition fees is starting to become lost in clichés. The old favourite of why should taxpayers pay for students to doss around for three years is rearing its ugly head again. This argument leads down a slippery slope. To begin with at what point does education no longer become a right but a privilege? And following that train of thought, what other privileges have we naïvely been classing as rights. Healthcare perhaps? Why should taxpayers pay for someone to have heart surgery if they’ve never gone for a jog in their life? That’s another argument that’s raising its ugly head again, but consider this point: the tax payers of tomorrow will be the ones who have had to pay between £6,000-£9,000 a year for a university education. If tax payers didn’t help them out when they needed it, why should they as the taxpayers of the future do the same? The state didn’t contribute towards their education so why should they help the state contribute towards someone else’s surgery, hunt for a house or childcare?
The tuition fee vote is likely to shape a lot more than just the price of a degree: if fees increase we can expect a radical shift in people’s attitudes towards what they will and will not pay for, and the Lib Dems would do well to realise a lot more is at stake than just broken promises.