Friday 13 March 2009

Fees, debts, and deals

It's not without a degree of trepidation that I return to the question of student fees. It's not exactly the world's best-kept secret that the issue caused Plaid – and myself – a few headaches recently.

One question that I've been asked repeatedly is "how can you have a situation where your party says one thing whilst a government including ministers from your party does the opposite?". It's a fair question on the surface, but it really isn't that strange in a world of coalitions. This is, after all, a fairly common situation in democracies more accustomed to coalition than we are; it's just something we need to get used to. I'd go further, in fact – from the day Plaid signed up to One Wales, it was obvious to me that such a situation would happen sooner or later, on one issue or another.

In negotiating One Wales, the two parties agreed to maintain the current basis of student funding for the first three years, but crucially were unable to agree at that stage what should happen in year four.

So, we have a coalition between Labour on the one hand, who have long wanted to introduce top-up fees in Wales and are seemingly quite content to see our young people completing their education tens of thousands of pounds in debt, and Plaid on the other, who believe that tuition should be free and that our students should not be saddled with debt. The potential for conflict was therefore written into the agreement from the outset - there was never any way that both parties would be able to deliver their policies in full.

The compromise agreed by the One Wales partners effectively allows Labour to introduce their fees, but also provides a package to start to tackle student debt – a key election pledge for Plaid. I wouldn't describe that as a draw, by any means (but then the two teams aren't equal in size), but it's an agreement which reflects elements of both parties' policies.

The other question that I've been asked is whether we could have got a better deal – one closer to Plaid's view. Political opponents are particularly quick to criticise, and suggest that we could and should have got a better deal. I honestly don't know whether they're right or not; the discussions took place at government rather than party level. Those of us outside the discussions can only judge based on our own opinions.

What I do know is that once our team have done their best, once a deal like this is struck, on any issue, the only choices we have as a party are to accept it or to walk away from One Wales. And that's ultimately a question of deciding whether to walk away from what is being achieved overall because of one item which is not being achieved.

It's public knowledge that we've had some agonising before coming to a conclusion, and that some have been agonising more than others. But ultimately, we have to weigh the failures against the successes, and decide whether those successes outweigh the failures. On this issue, we've made our choice, and it is up to the voters next time round to decide whether they think we made the right choice or not.

It's a compromise; of course it is. Not the first, and I'm certain that it won't be the last. It's certainly the biggest one to date, and one which means that our ministers are involved in implementing a policy which runs contrary to what most of us continue to believe to be right. It does not mean that the party has changed its position – and it certainly does not mean that I and other opponents of the policy will be arguing that top-up fees are the right thing to do. They're not, and I shall continue to say that, as will Plaid Cymru as a party.

Ultimately, the conclusion that we reach in circumstances such as these is not so much about whether it's the right decision to take, but whether, taken overall, One Wales is still right for Wales. And I will continue supporting the government as long as I believe that to be the case, even though I may disagree with particular decisions. Where those decisions conflict with Plaid policy, there is nothing at all inconsistent in continuing to promote the party's view.

What we need, if we want to implement more of our policies, is a numerically stronger Plaid team in the Assembly next time round. The larger the team, the fewer the compromises.


Anonymous said...

this is my concern:

Anonymous said...

I am so disheartened by Plaid Cymru - the political party I most align with has let me down.
Why do we have to compromise? Plaid ministers would be outvoted in Cabinet anyway so why not stick to our principles and party policy and oppose top-up fees?

Okay, we essentially have top-up fees already, it's just the fact that the WAG offset the costs - not many people recognise this!

I am genuinely disgusted. There are a number of student unions that really aren't happy about this and one should never under-estimate the power of the student vote. This is exactly the type of issue that will cut apathy and mobilise the student movement once again. Elin Jones can kiss ceredigion goodbye as the Lib Dem students get the vote out; Bangor students are always up for a fight; and Trinity College is in Carmarthen West and South Pembs! I'd love you to get elected, John. Don't get your hopes up though as Trinity are dead against these proposals!

Anonymous said...

Higher Education- The Serch for Intelligent Life!!
Fees relate to costs.HE is too costly and overated.Example - Banks, there were more degrees per sq yard in the City of London than anywhere on the planet.Did the Degree brigade spot the crisis -NO,will we get our money back put into their education-NO.Solution- Eductaion-the important years are 0-9 treble infant teacher pay ,reduce Lectures pay by 50% Sorted.