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There will be riots on the streets: One promise Nick Clegg has kept

15th November 2010

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We can now be certain of one thing. The coalitions tripling of tuition fees, and slashing of the universities budget, is not a trivial matter to the academic population of this country. The march in London last week proved we are united, over 50,000 of us.

Fees protestFar be it from me to condone violence something that is beyond my sheepish, wimpish, speccy nature but is it not at all conceivable, and obvious, to the political class of this nation that if you keep promising things to students, and then set about a 180 degree turn before we've hardly had time to fold up our little ballot papers and slip them into the ballot box, we might just get a bit angry?

Of course, the premonitionist extraordinaire, Nicholas William Peter Clegg, knew this would happen. Before the general election he warned us of "Greek style social unrest" in an interview with the Observer newspaper. Well done Mr Deputy Prime Minister, it's a pity you couldn't foresee your own u-turn on student fees and warned us about that too!

Clegg, standing in for the Prime Minister who is away attending a G20 summit, exclaimed at the despatch box during PMQ's this week that "we have stuck to our wider ambition of abolishing tuition fees" - cue a flurry of opposition order papers being waved in the Deputy Prime Ministers direction. This statement opens up an interesting paradox in the Liberal Democrats current position on tuition fees. Namely, in the way that some politicians seem to freely use the words deficit and debt to mean the same thing, when they don't, the Lib Dems claim they can't implement their manifesto, as they're not a majority government, this is their get out of jail free card.

But this fails to acknowledge that there is a distinction to be made between their manifesto pledge, and the NUS pledge every Lib Dem MP signed on an individual basis.

The Liberal Democrat manifesto promised to "scrap unfair university tuition fees for all students taking their first degrees", and goes on to say, "we have a financially responsible plan to phase fees out over six years, so that the change is affordable even in these difficult economic times, and without cutting university funding". Where do we begin in the horrible and messy autopsy of this political statement?

Firstly, if the Liberal Democrat plan for phasing out tuition fees is affordable, even in these difficult economic times, why don't they explain it to George Osborne? Surely it would be possible, using a piece of scrap paper and some crayons? But we didn't realise how bad the economic times really are! Exclaim Clegg et al. Which is a troubling thought considering the hefty lauding that Vince Cable received due to his expert analysis of these difficult, sorry, very difficult economic times.

He must have been wrong! Duh-duh-duh! And if his holiness Vince Cable, postulator of housing bubbles and deficit troubles, can be wrong what hope is there for the rest of them? Perhaps Osborne and the Treasury are wrong, perhaps they are overestimating the economic doom, perhaps the deficit dial isn't all the way up to eleven, maybe it's a more encouraging eight or nine? The Treasury has form after all, their figures that forced the government to ask for a loan from the IMF in 1976 turned out to be incorrect. And that spelt the end of Keynesianism, the beginning of deep public spending cuts, privatisation and Monetarism.

Secondly, the manifesto pledge can only be assumed to be a move towards funding higher education entirely from general taxation. So Clegg's claim to be moving towards his wider aim can only be assumed to be some woefully inadequate political manoeuvring, as higher education will move towards being almost entirely funded from student contributions.

But, even if we park our issues with the manifesto to one side, and agree, quite respectfully, that the Liberal Democrats cannot possibly implement their entire manifesto as they are only a minority partner in a coalition government with the emphasis on minority, 57 seats to the Conservatives 306 there are still those damn NUS pledges.

The NUS pledges and the manifesto are not the same thing. The NUS pledges were unconditional and signed by individual Liberal Democrat MP's with the simple promise to vote against a rise in tuition fees in the next Parliament. Nothing about abolishing or slowly phasing them out. So when Clegg argues he has to break the promise he made to all those students when he happily signed his NUS pledge because he cannot possibly implement everything he intended to do in government, he's not being entirely honest. I don't expect him to phase out tuition fees in this Parliament, and neither should you, he leads a very small minority within a coalition and some might argue an even smaller minority within his own party. But I did not expect him, after everything he said and after championing the NUS pledge, to settle for a policy which involves trebling tuition fees. I won't settle for that, and neither should you.

We all remember Labour's manifesto pledge not to introduce top-up fees, which even the Conservative party voted against, calling it a "tax on learning". The Liberal Democrats are not the first political party to take students for granted, but we must make sure they are the last. I don't advocate smashing windows, nor mindlessly throwing heavy objects from tall buildings, such actions will not go unnoticed by the authorities I am sure. But there will be more marches through Whitehall as the cuts begin to bite. We must make sure politicians realise we cannot be bought with empty promises. We must participate in democracy at every opportunity, making ourselves heard. We must invite politicians to our institutions and debate with them. We must also applaud and praise those MP's, from any party, who vote against the governments legislation on this issue.

One can only wonder if there is any moral high ground left to take on the subjects of student finance and higher education funding, considering how fast each political party has dug itself into a very deep hole on these issues.

Is it any wonder we're angry?

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