The deputy PM deserves all the opprobrium being heaped on him for betraying students
Students bring out a violent streak in me. When I see NUS spokespeople on TV talking simplistically about tuition fees, even though I basically agree with the sentiments they express so unattractively, I want to punch them. But I also like watching them chuck stuff at the police, smash windows and jump up and down on vans. I'm not so keen on the fire extinguisher hurling – I lose my appetite for the scuffle if I think someone might get killed – but a bit of a ruck with some bobbies dressed as X-wing pilots seems entirely appropriate.
It's the peaceful protesting that winds me up: the super-keen "political" students who've nosed their way into being interviewed to show how clever they are. They seem unrealistic and unaccountable and you can smell the self-interest and grubby ambition lurking beneath the veneer of unworkable ideals. Like pre-election Lib Dems.
I don't know why I find them so unsympathetic but I don't think I'm alone. Not many people warm to moaning undergraduates, even if they've been moaning undergraduates themselves. Maybe it's because students have got their whole lives ahead of them that it looks so churlish when they complain. Or is it society's inherent ageism that makes it unbearable to listen to someone much younger than you saying that they know best? My inner Victorian thinks they should be seen and not heard. But I don't mind seeing them piss through the letterbox of Nick Clegg's constituency office.
The crude truth is that student violence works better than any amount of priggish argument. When the protests of 10 November turned to window smashing, a lot of people tutted that, while 50,000 peacefully protested, a tiny minority's violence would dominate the front pages. Exactly! Without it, the demonstration may not have made the front pages at all.
Student "unrest" is embarrassing for the coalition because even its slavish supporters in the press can't resist talking up a bit of pushing as if it heralds revolution. A few short clips of jerkily televised vandalism make the government look like it's failing to govern. The fact that more damage gets done to public property every day by people turning round quickly while holding something hot is irrelevant. A photo of broken glass is a thousand times more politically threatening than a kid with an unwise haircut whining about his allowance.
Another reason to support the fisticuffs is that Nick Clegg doesn't like it at all. Before last Wednesday's demonstrations, he appealed for people to "examine our proposals before taking to the streets. Listen and look before you march and shout". Sounds like a protesters' green cross code.
One of the many problems with the proposals is that you need to examine them so carefully before you realise that they're not quite as awful as they initially seem. The fact that the vast amount of debt that students will accrue will only be repayable when they earn more than £21,000 a year and will be written off after 30 years of failing to do so elevates the scheme from an utter disgrace to a huge disappointment. But this scant silver lining is barely noticeable. Kids, especially from poorer backgrounds, will just see the giant cloud of future debt and infer that higher education isn't a welcome opportunity but a big financial gamble.
Over the past decade, university courses have proliferated, which has diluted academic standards. Already, we have a situation in which students borrow heavily to be able to take courses that are less use to them than the ones their predecessors took for free. The coalition's proposals would greatly worsen this state of affairs. It makes higher education a big risk, one which the poor and those from families without previous graduates are much less likely to take. These are the people whose social mobility can be utterly transformed by university.
Yet Nick Clegg, who went to the polls promising that, in the unlikely event of his getting a whiff of power, he'd abolish tuition fees, has the gall to say, on the subject of more old boys of Eton and Westminster going to Oxbridge than state-school pupils from low income families: "These are the things that make me angry."
Are they really? Well, what are you doing about them then? Why have you abandoned a policy that would have alleviated such inequities, and on which you were elected, for one that worsens them? We all knew before the election that the country was in financial trouble, but you still declared that a Liberal Democrat government, because it valued education, would make the abolition of tuition fees a spending priority. I understand that the Tories won't let you do so now but that doesn't mean you're not a hypocrite for helping them do the opposite.
National wealth comes and goes, we have good times and bad. A rarer commodity, one vital to effecting change, is political will. If there's a will for a progressive reform, statesmen instinctively find a way. That's why Clement Attlee persevered with setting up the welfare state in the late 1940s, even though the country had never been poorer. He sensed that, if he waited for better economic times, the political will would have gone. In this less statesmanlike era, when the political will existed to reform the banking system in the immediate aftermath of the financial crisis, the government bottled it and now the Tories are in and the will is gone.
The student protests just might be demonstrating a growing political will to reform our higher education system, to have it paid for out of income tax. I think that would be fairer. Maybe it's unrealistic but it's what happened until 12 years ago before the proliferation of courses. If, as a nation, we really cared about higher education, we'd find the money. If the Lib Dems cared half as much as they claimed, they'd welcome this movement. Instead, Nick Clegg wants the students to go home.
What did he get for compromising so many of his party's principles? A referendum on a type of electoral reform that it never advocated. He should have held out for full PR or made the Tories govern as a minority. The political will was with him then. But he didn't sense it and he took the important-sounding job. He'll always be able to say he was once deputy prime minister. But the question he leaves unanswered is: "Why would anyone ever vote for the Liberal Democrats again?"
What he says about the amount in repayments and debt being written off is true, but I think the amount of debt is only part of the argument. These proposals don't save the state anything at all for a very long time, and really this tuition fees thing is largely about a perception/policy shift of moving the burden of higher education from the state to the student to enable governments of all colours to shaft the students/young more in the future. Pretty much everything Mitchell said here seems right on the money to me.