In April 1997, when asked about tuition fees, Tony Blair said that “Labour has no plans to introduce tuition fees for higher education”. I would suggest that was misleading at best.
On the same day in July 1997 that the Dearing Report regarding the future of higher education was published, David Blunkett announced a plan to introduce tuition fees. Obviously the plans were not based upon careful consideration of the report’s findings, Labour’s plans were being reported even before the report came out.
Phill Woolas, who in more recent times has been found guilty of knowingly making false statements as part of his 2010 general election campaign, described the Dearing Report as being “a result of a political conspiracy. But one between political parties which did not want to face the problem before the general election.” The timing of Labour’s announcement would support the idea that the Dearing Report was primarily a tool for keeping the problem of higher education funding out of the election.
The 1997 Labour manifesto however did hint at the possibility of tuition fees; “The improvement and expansion needed cannot be funded out of general taxation”. It also said that the party had made proposals for funding to the Dearing Committee.
Considering the manifesto was launched in early April, it would be very interesting to know what Labour had at that point submitted to the Dearing Committee. Is it really conceivable that by April 1997 Labour didn’t have a plan to introduce tuition fees? I don’t think so. They had to consider the issue to make their representations to the Dearing Committee and their manifesto clearly set out that they didn’t think the situation then could continue. If only we could know what it was that Labour had submitted to the committee.
Labour’s introduction of tuition fees was not a response to the Dearing Report. The Dearing Report was a response to a desire by both Labour and the Tories to introduce tuition fees whilst minimising the cost of doing so to their electoral performance.
I wonder how many people in 1997 were misled by Blair’s statement? Don’t be fooled. Labour aren’t the loyal friends of students they appear to be trying quite successfully to be seen as.