I'm in favour of supporting universities, and students, via general taxation because the benefits of university education are public: they benefit all of us. I, along with many others, benefited directly from a free university education 20 years ago. I, along with other people and companies, currently benefit from university trained lawyers, nurses, doctors, engineers and so forth, regardless of my own education. I believe that the higher education system should be reformed to separate teaching and research, and also that we should consider all post-18 training in the context of any reforms to university education i.e. we should not distinguish between plumbers and physicists - they are equally valuable. As I watched water freely flowing from a burst pipe last winter, I strongly believed the former more valuable than the later.
The Liberal Democrats have been very tied up over tuition fees because they signed a pledge to vote against tuition fees, largely it has been asserted that the pledge on fees indicates that it takes priority over all other manifesto pledges. In retrospect it would have been wise not to make such a pledge which could so easily invite such a distinction. In their defence I think it illustrates that LibDem MPs did not anticipate fully finding themselves in Coalition government, unsurprising given the last 60 years of elections. Nick Clegg did attempt to persuade the party to scrap this pledge towards the end of 2009, which would have been a politically wise move. It's worth noting that the LibDems could fulfil their pledge to the letter if they were in opposition, or in a looser electoral pact, in neither of these cases would they be able to influence the policy of the government so their opposition would be entirely decorative. No doubt many believe that LibDems should have given up Coalition government on this issue, that would have been stupid and pointless.
The discussion on tuition fees is made in a context where, in Liam Byrne's words "there is no money", all of the major Westminster parties proposed to address a large deficit mainly by making cuts to government spending, rather than raising taxation. In light of this, and the Browne report, making a bid for even flat central funding in the higher education sector was always going to be an uphill struggle.
I estimated previously that tuition fees could be replaced by an increase of 2p on basic rate tax, or 8p on higher rate tax and the Greens have proposed 4p on corporation tax to fund higher education. Those are tax increases of 10%, 20% and 15% respectively. Clearly combinations of these three elements would also work. However, it must be recognised that higher education will always be in competition with other claims on the public purse. If you had £7bn to spend would higher education be your first priority? Or would it be schools, benefits, hospitals or tax cuts?
The scheme proposed by the Coalition does shift paying for university education further from general taxation. However, I believe Vince Cable has done a fair job of adding LibDemery to the Browne report, commissioned by Labour. In particular covering part-time education, capping tuition fees, and attempting to make repayment progressive. The principle difference to a pure graduate tax is that a tuition fee is stated, if not paid up front. A large number of people seem keen to imply that tuition fees will be payable up front, which they are not, and simultaneously claim that poorer students will be put off applying - perhaps because they have been repeatedly told fees will be payable up front.
As for what LibDem MPs should do when presented with the relevant parliamentary bill. It's quite clear that backbench LibDem MPs should abstain, those that vote against are free to do so but should suffer the consequences in terms of party discipline. Government ministers are in a less clear position, the Coalition agreement does allow for them to abstain, however particularly in Vince Cable's case, where he was heavily involved in developing the proposed legislation and feels happy with the results, it seems to me he must vote in favour - anything else just looks strange. There is a logic for all Liberal Democrat government ministers voting for the tuition fee proposals, this would be the case in a simple, one-party majority government.
In a coalition government, the policy of the component parties is not the same thing as the policy of the government. I tentatively believe the LibDems should retain an ambition to fund higher education from general taxation, I struggle to see how this policy will be implemented in the next 10 years but I do not feel this should rule out LibDems holding it as a policy. I believe, in future, the LibDems should avoid, like the plague, making pledges in the form that they made on tuition fees. They should also apply a disclaimer to their manifesto that they will negotiate to implement what they can from the manifesto but only in majority government will they pledge to deliver all policies.