The Pledge and the Manifesto - what do they mean?
There have been some questions as to what The NUS Pledge and the commitment in the Lib Dem Manifesto mean.
Let us start with the NUS Pledge:
“I pledge to vote against any increase in fees in the next parliament and to pressure the government to introduce a fairer alternative.”
This is normally misrepresented by people as a simple statement against voting against fees. In fact often only the first part is mentioned.
I interpret the statement as meaning that whilst the system remains as it is then the fees should not go up. However, when we have a "fairer alternative" then the limitation on fees should not exist.
This is obviously the right interpretation. Otherwise the implication would be that the capitation paid to universities would have to be static. The new system disconnects the student "graduate contribution" from the amount of fees paid to the university (by the government or an agent of the government) for the majority of students (source IFS). What the students pay is the key issue rather than what the universities get from the perspective of the pledge.
Hence if we really do have a "fairer alternative" the pledge is satisfied by getting the fairer alternative.
Given that the NUS are proposing their own fairer alternative which is quite similar to that proposed by the government then I would assume that this is also the interpresetation of the NUS.
As far as the manifesto goes we had set out an objective of phasing out fees (which means the government paying them) over a period of 6 years. That was in a strict sense not scrapping fees, but paying them out of general taxation.
The coalition's proposal is a hybrid where there is a capped graduate tax subsidised by general taxation. It is not the same as the manifesto proposal, but it is not a U turn.
-- further point added after comments.
The alternative interpretation of the pledge that under no circumstances fees should go up is in fact in conflict with the Lib Dem Manifesto. The Lib Dem Manifesto argued that the government should pay for fees over a 6 year period. The "no circumstances" interpretation would imply therefore that the sum paid to unversities should not be increased even if more of it was paid from general taxation. This is clearly an absurd interpretation.