Friday 20 March 2009

Labour haven't won the argument

There were no surprises in the announcement this week of the scrapping of the Tuition Fees Grant; but then, no-one really expected any. I understand why the Government has taken the decision, but that isn't at all the same as agreeing with the decision.

There is no doubt, as Adam Price has persuasively argued, that the policy was not only a distinctive measure, but was also achieving one of the Assembly Government's stated objectives of encouraging more Welsh-domiciled students to study in Wales. In some ways, it was a blunt instrument; but even blunt instruments can work well on occasions. There's always an argument for replacing a blunt instrument with a sharper one - as long as it does a better job. This one doesn't.

Adam goes further, and argues that we should make a clear commitment to reversing the policy in the next Assembly manifesto. That's something which the membership will decide when we debate that manifesto, of course.

The more important lesson for me - and I know for many others - is that it isn't just what's in the manifesto that matters. As Adam indicates, it's equally important to define what manifesto commitments are non-negotiable when it comes to coalition negotiations. Experience is not always the most comfortable way of learning a hard lesson.

The whole issue of student finance is, of course, a great deal more complicated than the simplistic question of fees, and the Assembly Government's package to start to address student debt is one aspect which should be welcomed. The question of principle, however, remains whether students should be in debt at the end of their studies in the first place.

For me, increasing the level of expertise and skills possessed by our young people when they complete their education is an investment in the future of all of us. Given a truly progressive tax system, those who use their expertise and skills to earn more than others will pay more in taxes in return, and that helps to fund the next generation's education.

Wales' biggest problem, in economic terms, is that our GVA per head is lower than the UK average. Part of the answer to that, surely, has to be encouraging our brightest young people to make their homes and careers in Wales, rather than to look elsewhere – and encouraging them to study in Wales helps to achieve that aim.

The introduction of top-up fees in England was always going to create difficulties in Wales unless the Assembly Government had a full range of powers on taxation and spending. And increases in the cap level in England were always going to make the situation worse. Policies being pursued in England inevitably constrain the range of options which could have been followed in Wales, and it would be naïve to pretend otherwise.

But, even having said all that, I still don't believe that the Assembly Government needed to simply follow the English lead, which is what the Labour Party wanted to do from the outset. The lack of imagination shown by the Labour Party in Wales on this issue is disappointing, to say the least. They may have got their way at this stage; but they haven't won the argument.


Anonymous said...

'Labour havn't won the argument' ... who cares, they've just erm, won.

politics isn't a university lecture. It's just a posh word for power.

Labour won. Plaid in power didn't oppose them. Labour won. End of.

John Dixon said...


True, of course. But Labour also won nearly twice as many Assembly seats as Plaid - more people voted for their policy on this issue than voted for Plaid's policy. I would wish it were not so, of course. And I'm not at all happy with the fact that we have had to compromise on a policy which I still believe to be right - I think I've made that fairly clear, both publicly and internally.