There is much really interesting comment on Facebook, on blogs & websites and in messages received (from Liberal Democrat, Labour and Conservative supporters, and people whose political allegiance I do not know). I am indebted to that.
(1) I've campaigned against these policies all my political life – against Student Loans replacing grants under the Tories, against graduate tax (which Labour and Tories & some Lib Dems have touted), against Fees introduced by Labour, against Labour plans for top up fees.
(2) 65% of the public voted for Labour and Conservative who have introduced the policies that ended free Higher Education (including I presume most students) and only 23% voted Liberal Democrat who supported restoring it, so presumably the vast majority of the public are not that bothered. That isn't a reason for Liberals to abandon their position (support for free higher education as a public good, paid for out of general taxation) but the most serious recession for 30 years necessitates a rethink.
(3) In a coalition you have to compromise – that is in the nature of working together in a grown up way that has largely been sadly absent from British politics.
(4) Politically LDs should be able to abstain or vote against and let Labour & Tories vote higher fees in but of course Labour will simply hypocritically reverse their policy & present themselves as opposed, just as they have flipped and flopped on AV (which I don't support but they went into an election saying they did).
(5) There are far too many students and a lack of graduate level jobs. In the North a graduate job may pay only £12K to £14K and many graduates are not getting those jobs. Many are lucky enough to earn more than £21K (including many University of Liverpool graduates) but that is not the norm. Getting far more young people educated to degree level was the right policy but had gone too far several years ago. To take a line from Simon McGrath if we had fewer students they could be publicly funded to a much higher level. Labour rightly supported wider access for those who could benefit but they should not have done it by cutting opportunities that they had.
(6) NUS will campaign passionately but show me an NUS Leader who has not sold out. The National Union of Students is simply a career Labour politician training school and its Presidents cannot be trusted as they all sell out. [If I've defamed a single NUS President let me know and I will correct this. I have nothing but contempt for a bunch of careerist right wing politicians who play at being progressive and run off to the Labour establishment). Any Labour student in NUS is simply a fraudster – claiming to stand up for the students they are letting down.
(7) The trade unions will howl but the Unions invariably back Labour who created most of the mess. The UCU (my own Union) has campaigned very well against these proposals but seems to want to continue expanding Higher Education in a way that will simply betray the hopes and aspirations of young people who will not get graduate jobs (fortunately most of my students do get good graduate jobs) and for several years it has been blindingly obvious to anyone dealing with University careers advice that many students enticed into higher education (the kind that is advertised as if you simply pay and get a degree or get it by applying for one off a website or the side of a bus) would have been better off doing something more practical instead.
(8) Answers. The genuinely talented or higher education inclined should be able to go and not be put off by fees. Hopefully ideas of how to achieve that will come out from the debate – I don't have an easy answer and would love if other people did. Cutting student numbers would be a start – there is no right that the tax payer should pay for everyone to have a degree. There is no right that the tax payer should fund a HE job creation sector for the sake of it, just as those of us who have reformed local government have pointed out that local government is not the same as a job protection scheme. Universities are a public good however, Labour and Tories who are obsessed with big business who benefited from the education they provide (for free) should remember that. Vice Chancellors should be reigned in treating Universities as a business and students reminded that they do not get a degree simply because they pay fees. As Jonathan Calder says "making universities behave more like universities and less like international corporations will be a far harder task." However all of us in Universities have to accept we are paid via public money and student contributions and that means we have to do our bit to help in this crisis.
A further thought. The report is said to recommend that Government funding for teaching be withdrawn from the humanities and social sciences. That veers towards a view that does not see education as a public good. It is entirely proper that the Government concentrate funding on economically relevant subjects if it wishes as a policy. The Browne report at para. 6.2 talks about priority subjects and courses which "provide skills and knowledge currently in shortage or predicted to be in the future." Primarily it means science and technology, healthcare and languages. There is nothing wrong with concentrating funding on courses that provide skills the country needs. It would be outrageous if Labour and Conservative and Liberal Democrat MPs who benefited from free higher education deny the opportunity for state support to study arts or classics or politics or philosophy to those who wish for a rounded education. Even Mrs. Thatcher never suggested that Universities should just be about training for jobs. It would be appalling if the coalition MPs followed the ranks of Labour MPs who studied PPE at Oxford or Politics or Law at a redbrick and then curtailed that opportunity for others.
I've particularly benefited from reading comment by Gareth Epps <<a href="http://www.garethepps.org.uk/">http://www.garethepps.org.uk/>, on the Liberal Democrat Voice website and by Jonathan Calder <<a href="http://liberalengland.blogspot.com/">http://liberalengland.blogspot.com/>. Also talking to colleagues.