Tax and mend? Lib Dems start road to funding fix
Former Cambridge bursar leads long journey to recovery. John Morgan reports from Brighton
The Liberal Democrats have set in motion the development of a new policy on higher education fees and funding under the leadership of a peer who advocates a graduate tax.
Baroness Brinton of Kenardington, former bursar of Lucy Cavendish College and Selwyn College, both University of Cambridge, is chairing a policy working group on post-16 education that could prove crucial for the sector if the party again finds itself in coalition after the next general election.
The Lib Dems will hope that fresh policies on university fees and funding will help them to recover from the damage inflicted by their decision to backtrack on a pre-election pledge to oppose higher fees.
Speaking to Times Higher Education during the Lib Dem conference in Brighton, held on 22-26 September, Lady Brinton discussed the policy working group's "enormous" remit.
"Fees will be part of that," she said, adding that student finance is "key but it mustn't dominate, because there is so much more in HE that we need to have a clear view on as a party".
Official Lib Dem policy still opposes any increase in fees - despite the party's MPs having helped vote through the coalition's policy to raise the fee cap to £9,000.
Last week, Nick Clegg, the Lib Dem leader and deputy prime minister, attempted to draw a line under the episode by pre-releasing a party political broadcast in which he apologises for the fees pledge.
"The problem is it's a pre-2010 thing," Lady Brinton said of the official party policy.
"It says: 'We will not accept an increase in tuition fees, end of topic.' It doesn't say what we would do...it implies we would plough more public money in and keep the fees at [2010 levels].
"Life's moved on, which is why we've absolutely got to look at it."
Lady Brinton said that uniquely among the UK's three major political parties, members vote on Lib Dem policy. So the policy working group will formulate proposals (which will include working in concert with sector experts) before consulting party members at the Lib Dem spring conference in March 2013.
If members decide to support the proposals at a later conference, they will become official party policy. The Lib Dem leadership will then decide whether to adopt any of the policies as manifesto commitments.
Lady Brinton predicted that when the proposals return to conference, "there will be a very big debate. My frustration will be [it] will all be about student finance - the remit is much broader."
She added: "I'm passionate about progression routes from further education into higher education, about HE in FE...Most people's view of HE is of 18-year-olds going away for three years and that's just not the face of what's going on."
Lady Brinton said of her own stance: "I've always been an advocate of a graduate tax."
She said she had been "extremely disappointed" by the new funding arrangements being labelled as tuition fees because "it was clear" to her that the system was "close to" a graduate tax.