Steve Richards: University access for state-school pupils will determine Clegg's legacy

Those who accuse him of arrogantly enjoying power for the sake of it ignore the fact that he is exposed to degrees of opprobrium that make politics unsettling
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The saga over Nick Clegg and tuition fees reaches a pivotal phase. Predictably, Oxford and Cambridge universities have announced they plan to charge the maximum tuition fees for new students. Almost certainly other top universities will follow suit, increasing by 300 per cent the cost of studying. The instant leap makes recent rises in petrol and food prices seem like reckless giveaways.

So far almost all the anger of those who justifiably fume at the scale of the increase, and the breach of trust that accompanies it, has erupted around Clegg. If observers from Mars had witnessed the effigies of the Deputy Prime Minister being burnt in demonstrations last year, they would have assumed he was alone responsible for the decision and had imposed it on a reluctant David Cameron and George Osborne, who were much more nobly concerned about the impact on accessibility.

As with virtually all sequences in which angry hysteria plays its part, the reality is more complicated. Clegg is not an easy figure to place on the political spectrum. As one of his senior colleagues observed to me recently, he fits more easily in a European tradition, genuinely progressive and anti-establishment in some respects and yet largely at ease with the small state, market-based reforms of Messrs Cameron and Osborne.

Clegg misjudges the many fatal flaws of the last Government, concluding simplistically that social democracy failed. But in his restless desire to narrow inequality and improve social mobility he has been, in overtly expressed ambition at least, more daring than Labour. He was the only leader at the last election to argue openly for redistribution in the tax system. Messrs Brown, Balls and Ed Miliband were believers, but never used the term in public. Clegg did so and put forward policies aimed at helping those on low incomes, some of which are being implemented now.

Behind the scenes he was more robust on bankers' bonuses than Cameron/Osborne, who were more reluctant to interfere in the affairs of a sector that their 1980s instincts told them to leave alone. On the banks Clegg was wholly supportive of Vince Cable's more bullish public statements, even if they have failed to persuade the Treasury to move as far as they would have liked.

His progressive streak has been wholly obscured by the row over tuition fees and highlights why the sequence has been such a calamity for him and his party so far. However fair the repayments might be, the possibility of being £27,000 in debt at the age of 21 will put off many poorer pupils from even contemplating the already daunting prospect of competing for places with those from top public schools. That is why the Government's proposals for admission to the grander universities, which Clegg outlines in a speech today, are more politically important than any announcement he has made since the election last May.

Clegg needs to prove as a matter of political survival that his policies do not contradict directly his persistently expressed personal convictions. To some extent, he will be able to do so if he can prove that Oxbridge and other universities are taking more pupils from poorer backgrounds by the time of the next election. With good cause, Clegg warns of the social segregation that arises from the current arrangements, in which students are largely plucked from private schools.

The iniquities are obvious. The solution is more challenging. The early test will lie in the strength of the punitive measures that are to be imposed on top universities if they fail to admit more pupils from state schools while charging maximum fees. Clegg is determined, but I detect a hint of New Labour evasiveness and get-out clauses in the Coalition's proposals. The Office of Fair Access – the body set up by Labour to police university admissions – will allow institutions the flexibility to decide how they will increase the number of students from poorer backgrounds.

Some universities might explore the outer limits of flexibility and do nothing at all. Ministerial exhortation will not be enough. The universities will ignore nudges from the Government. Sanctions must be strictly applied. Only then will the changes take place. The chance of strict application is limited when the Conservative wing is shuffling nervously. Yesterday I asked several Tory MPs what they thought of Clegg's objectives. None was enthusiastic.

Clegg will only prevail through resolute and persistent political courage. Early in Labour's first term Gordon Brown raised the case of Laura Spence, an academically successful state school pupil from the north-east turned down by Oxford. He dropped the issue within around 10 seconds. The two Eds, Miliband and Balls, regard the retreat as the great lost moment of the New Labour era, in which fairness and social mobility might have become defining themes. But parts of the media were scathing at the time, Tony Blair was in a panic about appearing Old Labour, and of course Brown panicked too, fearing any association that placed him half a millimetre to the left of Blair.

Wisely, Clegg has not put such an emphasis on a single student. Such life stories are never as true to life when subjected to scrutiny. But he has adopted the same theme, and will do so without much internal support.

Let us hope he has more appetite for sticking to his course. Unlike Brown, who was worried he would never lead if some newspapers saw him as Old Labour, it is in Clegg's political interests to meet his worthy objectives. He knows how high the stakes are. Last Friday, on a visit to his Sheffield constituency, he was exposed again to a level of vilification over tuition fees that he finds hard to take. The national frenzy is easier to tolerate than direct contact with fuming constituents. Those who accuse Clegg of arrogantly enjoying power for the sake of it ignore the fact that he is exposed to degrees of opprobrium that make politics deeply unsettling.

Arrogance is rarely a problem in British politics. In the tuition fees saga, the vast gap between promises and outcomes is the problem so far. The cause of social mobility would make a leap forward if Clegg succeeded in persuading universities to take more state pupils. His party's cause at the next election depends on it, too.;