When democracy isn’t exactly that. [Tuition Fees.]

I mean come on. I was listening to Moral Maze on Radio 4 the other night when driving home late. They were discussing ‘nudging’ – whereby the government use recognised, surreptitious practices to ‘nudge’ the thinking of the public in one direction or another. There were arguments for and against, and much of it explicity or implicitly around the issue of whether it was the government’s right or role to fiddle with the thinking of the public. Meaning that eventually, at some point, one of the illustrious debaters had to come out with a rough definition of what democratic government is: a collection of publicly-elected individuals put forward simply to represent the desires and wishes of the majority. It troubled me that in his voice it sounded like he had a little too much faith that what he was describing is what we’ve been getting in this nation recently.

I struggle to see that.

The coalition’s rosy honeymoon is over. Preceded only by a few noises within the Lib Dems already about compromise on policy in general, the recent issues surrounding the proposed rise in tuition fees at UK universities have really provided the first major challenge to the government since its election to power. Today the government voted in favour of the proposed rise in tuition fees.

As a recent graduate (York, Music, 2007), and one who has experienced financial struggle since then (something I say without shame or want of pity – I’m alive and well), my feelings naturally harmonised with the thousands of students and prospective students who I proudly watched take to the streets in such great numbers as to cause the huge media storm that we have seen. (Yes, I know about the violence. That’s a shame. Protests: good. There’s my sophisticated opinion on that one.)

I’m not about to sift through the mass of information and arguments to be made on either side of the debate and say ultimately what’s right or wrong, or perhaps ‘best’ or ‘worst’. Time will tell, presenting, I’m sure, it’s own surprises. But one can hardly help feeling that despite all the rhetoric around ‘fairness’ which has been the unmistakable watchword of the coalition as they make large budget cuts, there is something inherently unjust about lumping such great sums on those who are least able to afford it. Students have hardly been known as the most wealthy of citizens. It doesn’t take much to see that the government might be doing themselves a huge disfavour in putting a great many off of university study in this country.

Why, the pro-fees advocates might argue, are the government doing themselves a disfavour? These cuts are good and work well for graduates under this system (the £21,000 threshold etc.). People will come around to seeing this.

Well, o advocate, you’d better hope they do. Because amidst the great uproar (coming not merely from the streets, but from inside the Commons where there have been resignations and a few rebellions), it strikes me that though we have heard one or two debates in the media, and the protesting voice of Nick Clegg advocating the advantages of this rise in fees, the government could have done a lot more to quell the obvious strong national sentiment and lay out the facts as plainly as possible. I’m not saying they didn’t try. But it does seem that despite the protests that have been going on since last month, this has been pushed through without any further attempt to make things clear and amicable to student groups.

A couple of other observations. The Conservatives have managed to stay out of the firing line, to a large degree, perhaps sneakily. The issue has focussed on the Lib Dems, and their obvious turn around on their manifesto promise of not supporting a rise in tuition fees. Make of this what you will – they didn’t write that in prospect chiefly of a coalition government, nor perhaps had they quite anticipated the huge debt that faced the succeeding party (though surely it should have been in someone’s mind…).

New New Labour leader (I forget how he’s styled himself. I’m not sure I care) Miliband had a word or two for the Lib Dems in all this. Sorry, Ed, but whether or not it was to your liking or in your ‘style’, your party had a great deal to do with the massive debt. Hearing his advice I couldn’t help feeling that he was merely trying to establish his name, while he had some air to breathe, as a do-gooder, rather than as a genuine champion of the poor in this case. Maybe I’m just being cynical.

And a final observation. Reading one report earlier on the issue, it covered the opinions of the lecturer’s union, and of University deans and provosts. And the conclusion wasn’t overwhelmingly in the direction of the positive. You would have thought that the government, being a ‘democratically elected’ conglomerate, might find accord in some branch of society, even if no one much likes these cuts. But lecturers didn’t seem overly keen on the idea, and university and college authorities were also divided on the issue. No conclusion there.

Budget cuts have to be made. We all know that. It seems that with every cut announced, there is a group that doesn’t want that cut to go ahead – they all have their reasons why. But we have heard no stronger a protest than that which has come from the students these past few weeks. Putting the onus on those who are least able to bear it seems a bit harsh though. I’ve read the woeful tweets/facebook posts of sixth-formers I know lamenting the fact that, given they’re not able to afford uni, why bother at sixth form. Well, o advocate, if in fact it won’t be so bad for them, why don’t they know it? Why have the government not been doing more to steer public understanding that the next generation can go ahead confident that they won’t be lumbered with debt as a problem for years to come in their lives?

I’m sure everyone who reads this has lots of opinions and thinks I’m wrong on some things. That’s the way with these things. Like I said, time will tell. I hope that is satisfactory.

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