University tuition fees have been a regular source of political aggravation ever since they were first introduced by the Labour government in 1998. Greeted by street protests in the late 1990s and again in 2010 when the Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition announced plans to increase the cap on tuition fees from around £3,000 to £9,000, they have caused many a headache for our politicians.
The collapse in the Liberal Democrat poll ratings, particularly among students, has been linked to their now infamous u-turn on their pre-election promise to scrap tuition fees. Ed Miliband now appears to be attempting to target these disenchanted former Lib Dems with Labour’s recent pledge to cut the top rate of fees from £9,000 to £6,000.
In view of all this, we might assume that the British public is also deeply exercised about tuition fees. In fact, NatCen’s British Social Attitudes series shows that this is not necessarily the case.
Support for fees
Since 2004, we have asked people whether all students or their families should pay towards tuition costs, some should pay, or none should pay. In 2004, 11% of people in England said all students/families should pay, 66% that some students/families should pay, and 22% that none should pay.
A decade later, we have now found that these figures were almost unchanged: 11% all, 67% some, 21% none (2013 figures). So, in spite of the political controversy surrounding their introduction and subsequent increases in rates, there is a steady consensus among the English public around the principle that at least some students should pay fees.
This consensus does not stop at the border. In 2013 British Social Attitudes’ sister survey, Scottish Social Attitudes, found that 9% of people in Scotland thought all students/families should pay fees, while 64% thought that some should pay.
Just 26% thought no students or their families should pay. So in spite of stark differences in policy on this issue, the views of ordinary people in Scotland look little different from those of their counterparts south of the border.
Attitudes to tuition fees over time
Similarly, in spite of the intense internal controversy fees have caused the Liberal Democrats, the level of outright opposition to fees was never that high among Lib Dem supporters. In 2010 just 14% of Liberal Democrats in England opposed fees altogether. And in 2013, the most common position in England among Conservative, Labour and Lib Dem supporters and those who did not support any political party was that at least some students should pay fees.
Meanwhile in Scotland, only 25% of SNP supporters in 2013 said they thought no students or their families should pay. In short, partisan and territorial differences in policies do not appear to reflect differences in popular views.
But what rate?
Of course, support for the general principle of fees does not tell us what level of fees the public might consider acceptable. Unfortunately there is rather less data on this issue. What data there is suggests that the increase in fees to £9,000 was not particularly popular at the time it was announced, with 64% opposed.
A more recent poll suggests that more people support (49%) than oppose (31%) the Labour party’s policy of reducing fees from this level. But the fact that it garners support from less than half the public might be thought to indicate that reversing the increase is not a priority for a majority.
So where do we go from here? The consistency of public support for the principle that at least some students should pay fees suggests that fees in England are likely here to stay. At the same time, future Scottish Governments could well come under pressure to move at least some way in the direction of England.