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September 21, 2011

The twin faces of Vince Cable

Listening to Vince Cable at the Liberal Democrat conference yesterday morning sounded like listening to a man talking himself into something. Gone was the doom and gloom (or to be exact ‘grey skies’) of the previous day’s party conference speech: because this morning, he was talking about universities, and it was all ‘sunny uplands’.

Reforms would be ultimately good, Cable told an early morning fringe event, attended by a mixture of university chiefs, think tankers and venture capitalists. The aim of change was not to make universities better serve business, but that would be a result. In the vein of the Dearing report, business would invest more in universities and students would think more carefully about what they studied. Universities would receive more money overall, not less, and the “Soviet” style system of allocating student numbers would be scrapped.

On top of that, immigration reforms would continue to welcome foreign students to our shores and the science budget would be protected, if only in cash terms, he said as gleefully as Cable every says anything. On the last two issues, his exact words were “bad things could have happened in both these areas and didn’t”.

If you are a regular reader of Research Fortnight, I don’t need to tell you how many out there might question that last assertion in particular; the Campaign for Science and Engineering has said it most plainly here: http://sciencecampaign.org.uk/?p=7204.

And as questions began to roll in from fellow Lib Dems I wondered how many of Vince’s bubbles would be burst and who would be the first to do it.

But to my great surprise, that just didn’t happen. Cable fielded questions on skills, on the differential treatment of arts and sciences, on apprenticeships. But no there was no hint of worry about the great changes that would soon hit universities.

And that was something replicated across the conference, especially when it came to growth, entrepreneurship and higher education. Liberal Democrats seemed to be using their annual gathering to regroup, to tell each other to keep their heads up high and to congratulate themselves on achieving as much as they have, given the tough position both they are the whole country are in.

Overall, the feeling was they were not there to take to task their ministers in their first outing in power since World War II, not there to question the decisions they made, or didn’t make.

Even ‘access advocate’ Simon Hughes seems to think the tuition fees debacle was a case of mis-selling, mistakes in spin and  having ever made promises they couldn’t keep.  There was anger at failing to get the message across, and making a pledge on fees in the first place, but at every event I attended, as well as in the corridors and cafes, talk about the right to free education and to reversing policies once times were better, were gone.

Although debates on the NHS, legalising drugs and euthanasia suggest that the traditional (derisively described as sandal-wearing) element of the party are still out there, it seems that at least for now they’re dressed up in suits and sport stony faces which says “we’re not sorry for the choices we’ve made”.  Lib Dems feel they have bigger fish to fry.

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