It is difficult to escape the conclusion that Vince Cable cancelled his talk here today to avoid the spectacle of a protest. He shouldn’t have.
Cable’s spokespeople said his office wished to avoid the “disruption” to the residents of Oxford his visit might bring. Students and would-be students face a far greater disruption if the ruthless cuts and reforms that the Browne Review recommends for higher education go through. Universities would face shortfalls; students would see massive debt, and perhaps downsize their ambitions where the cost looks too fearsome.
The Government has not yet fully committed itself to any of Browne’s recommendations, but the writing is on the wall: higher student fees in one form or another are on their way. But now is not the time to rush changes which will have generational consequences, as sweeping spending cuts – arguably ill-advised when the economy has still not recovered – have been rushed.
For universities to remain accessible and a major asset to this country, the cost of funding them must be borne fairly and prudently.
The loudest student activists may not have all the right answers on higher education reform. But their message is constructive: slow down and consider the options. Listen to stakeholders. And remember that in a strong society, education is for everyone.
Mass protests and strikes continue in France over smaller but culturally resonant reforms. It is understandable that the Government would seek to avoid similar (if tamer and tinier) images here.
But students, like everyone else, ought to have their say. Voting once for a party is not enough to stamp a popular mandate on this sort of drastic policy overhaul – especially when the politicians ditch campaign promises, as the Liberal Democrats appear to be doing on university fees.
A visible protest is one way of legitimately influencing the debate. And by undercutting the demonstrations in an attempt to stage-manage the rollout of reforms, this Government is smothering debate where it ought to run free; it is ignoring the input of those interested in wise policy; and it is missing a chance to win a broad mandate on very broad changes.
Don’t cut and run, Cable – come back and listen.