Testing times for coalition cohesion

The following article was posted this morning on Critical Reaction, an online blog which commissions pieces from a wide range of authors on politics, culture and books: 

Formulating an acceptable policy on tuition fees was never going to be an easy task. There were far too many hostages to fortune given before the General Election for that.

It is also worth remembering that the opt-out in the Coalition Agreement applies implicitly only to Lib Dems outside the government and expressly to the outcome of Lord Browne’s Report. Yet these proposals have already been watered down considerably at the behest of the Liberal Democrats.

Browne wants to lift the fee cap entirely. The coalition proposal now is to raise the £3375 annual maximum to a two-tier cap of £6000 and £9000 (bringing with it a whole new raft of social engineering). Browne wanted to keep bureaucratic obligations upon universities to a minimum. The coalition proposal now includes free tuition for students who qualified for free school meals and additional powers to the access regulator designed to avoid putting the poorest students off Higher Education.

We may end up with the worst of all worlds.

Some of our best known globally competitive universities may soon look seriously at going private. For them even the higher cap is likely to prove inadequate to fund top quality courses for home grown students.

As for poorer students – in spite of the fanfare it is probably the case that far too few stand to benefit from these concessions. It also strikes me that the Liberal Democrats have not played the politics of this well. The media coverage over the past week has focussed on splits, divisions and overall confusion. A more sensible approach from the junior coalition partners would have been to claim (not unjustifiable) credit for the changes made to the policy since the publication of the Browne review.

Nothing would be more damaging to coalition unity, however, than for Liberal Democrat Ministers, whatever the difficulties they may face in their home constituencies, to fail to support the final policy. For if Conservative backbenchers, especially those in university towns, are subjected to a three line whip over tuition fees, there surely can be no indulgence permitting Lib Dem Ministers to abstain. For them the doctrine of collective responsibility must apply to both government and the coalition.