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What the demo violence means for higher student fees

As it is going on, the tone of coverage of the violence on the student demonstration can be surprisingly flippant. Patrick O’Flynn, the Daily Express chief political commentator, just tweeted, “Is this level of criminal damage any worse than that carried out by the Bullingdon back in the day of Cam and Boris tho? #justsaying”.

That won’t last. There will be a lot of condemning of the Millbank violence on the National Union of Students anti-fees demonstration in the papers tomorrow. I too am against it. But lets consider what the political impact of the violence is likely to be.

Violence is visceral. It reaches parts of the psyche that soundbites and policy papers dont. Everyone will be affected by this. The Conservatives evacuated from their HQ. Nick Clegg stuck in his car as the students flowed around him. Voters at home watching it on telly.

My guess is that there will be two main consequences for the debate on fees.

First, it will hit home all round what a big deal this is. The bubble of unreality that allowed Nick Clegg and Vince Cable to disappear from view on the day the governments response to Browne was announced will be punctured. The raising of fees will start to look to everyone as it did to Tony Blair – a very big deal indeed. The media will be more interested. The politicians will feel more weight, shifting the policy focus even further towards Number 10. The public will pay more attention. This is to the advantage of the NUS and the disadvantage of the Coalition, especially the Liberal Democrats.

The risk here is that ministers get nervous and, with everything else thats going on, the new kids at Number 10 cant cope. Decisions get delayed, the timetable slips and we rapidly get to a point where the reforms simply cant be introduced on a timescale that allows universities to replace with fees the money they lost in the CSR. The valley of death warned of by Hefce and Universities UK starts to look more possible.

What universities need now from the Coalition is the reassurance of a far more substantive timetable for the legislative and quasi-legislative work involved in the reforms, plus rapid clarification of the bigger remaining policy questions.

Second, the rather vague and unfocused debate on the proposed reforms will rapidly collapse into the question of which side you are on, where most people will mean whether you are for or against raising the fees cap to £9,000 a year. Those like Simon Hughes that would prefer not to answer this question will find that line harder to hold. Again, this is to the advantage of the NUS.

Further reading (most recent first)

Making a virtue out of obscurity – the Lib Dems secret path out of the tuition fees crisis

Browne really is the biggest gamble. In the whole world. Ever.

How to read David Willetts speech to vice chancellors at the HEFCE conference

HEPI’s devastating critique makes Browne look shallow

Why David Cameron may have to nuke the Lib Dems on student fees