JOIN THE DEBATE: Students shun Sheffield MP Clegg’s apology

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DEPUTY Prime Minister Nick Clegg’s apology for breaking his pledge to oppose increasing tuition fees has been dismissed as ‘too little too late’ by both of the city’s students’ unions.

Mr Clegg, whose Sheffield Hallam constituency has a large student population, admitted in a party political broadcast due to be screened next week that the promise had been ‘a mistake’.

But union officers at both Sheffield University and Sheffield Hallam said students would not easily forgive Mr Clegg and his party over the pledge, which was a key part of the Lib Dems’ 2010 election campaign.

Sheffield University Students’ Union president, Abdi Suleiman, said: “This is simply an admission that Mr Clegg sold out his principles. A broken promise is the mark of a failed politician and a disgrace to democracy.

“What we would really like to see is Mr Clegg visiting the University of Sheffield to apologise to each and every one of this year’s 3,000-plus home undergraduate students who will be graduating with at least £30,000 worth of debt.”

Jessica Goldstone, deputy president and education officer at Sheffield Hallam University Student Union, said: “It’s too little too late, not least for the students who enrolled this week and are having to pay £9,000 a year tuition fees.

“Students are not going to buy his apology and they are absolutely right not to. Even if he pledged to scrap tuition fees entirely now, no one would believe him.”

Before the 2010 election, the Lib Dems said they would oppose any rise in tuition fees.

More than 21 Lib Dem MPs voted against the rise, which was approved after the coalition was formed, but Mr Clegg was among the 27 Lib Dems who supported the change.

In his apology, he says: “There’s no easy way to say this - we made a pledge, we didn’t stick to it - and for that I am sorry.

“When you’ve made a mistake you should apologise. But more importantly - most important of all - you’ve got to learn from your mistakes. And that’s what we will do.”

Prof Matthew Flinders, deputy head of politics at the University of Sheffield, suggested Mr Clegg’s apology was misjudged: “It’s surprising because this is an issue that has a long shadow and my sense was that to some extent that was behind them. He has kicked up the silt on a settled issue.

“I don’t think his apology is going to work because it misunderstands the nature of political cynicism. The public don’t believe what politicians say and they certainly don’t believe them when they apologise.”

Abdi Suleiman added: “All Mr Clegg has done here is admit that he cannot keep promises.

“He says people should learn from their mistakes but students have learnt never to make the mistake of voting for Nick Clegg’s Lib Dems again.”

FOR

THE leader of Sheffield City Council’s Liberal Democrat group has hailed Nick Clegg’s ‘courage’ in apologising for the party’s broken tuition fees pledge.

Coun Shaffaq Mohammed, whose Broomhill ward is home to many of the city’s students, said the Deputy Prime Minister had done ‘the right thing’.

“Some people will say he should have done it two years ago but the most important thing is to admit that he made a mistake, hold his hands up and apologise,” he said.

“It’s something I have done myself in the past and I think the people of Sheffield are OK with that.

“Lots of other politicians have made mistakes before and not apologised. It takes a lot of courage to do, especially when you’re at the national level that Nick Clegg is.”

The apology came three days before the start of the Lib Dems’ conference, provoking speculation that the party’s leader was bidding to bolster support within his own ranks.

But Mr Clegg’s office insisted the apology was in response the number of people still talking about the issue and was not an attempt to consolidate his leadership.

And Coun Mohammed said he thought the sentiment of the Lib Dem leader’s words were more important than their timing.

“People might take issue with the timing of the apology and you can point to the party conference coming up, but there was a lot of anger about this issue and it would have been drowned out if he’d made it 18 months ago,” he said.

“Now we’ll just have to wait and see whether it is tuition fees that Nick is remembered for or whether his legacy is the many positive issues he has fought for.”

Coun Mohammed also suggested that many of the city’s students had already moved on from the issue.

“I was have been talking to students at Sheffield University’s freshers’ fair this week and while of course some of them do still challenge us over tuition fees, it is not what most of them are talking about this year.”

AGAINST

LABOUR’S Sheffield Central MP Paul Blomfield hit out at the Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg’s ‘calculated’ contrition over increased tuition fees and predicted that voters would ‘see straight through it’.

The politician added that ‘no apology was good enough’ over the Lib Dem leader’s broken pledge to oppose a hike in fees.

Mr Blomfield, former manager at Sheffield University Students’ Union, said: “He is not apologising for an honest mistake, he is apologising for cynical deceit. No apology is good enough.

“It will achieve nothing. It has been calculated to bolster his diminishing support, even among the Liberal Democrats. People will see straight through it.”

The Labour MP insisted voters in Sheffield would not forget the prominence that the Lib Dems gave to the issue of tuition fees in the run-up to the 2010 election.

He said: “The important thing to remember is that Nick Clegg put the pledge to abolish tuition fees at the heart of his election campaign in constituencies such as my own with high student populations.

“He campaigned relentlessly on this issue.”

Mr Blomfield added: “Clegg had already decided to ditch the pledge a month before he made an emotional appeal to the annual NUS conference for students to vote Liberal Democrat because they would ‘resist, vote against, and campaign against any lifting of the cap on tuition fees... with a plan to abolish tuition fees within six years’.

“It was central to their campaign but they were never going to do it.

Mr Blomfield added that that the broken pledge had damaged more than just Mr Clegg’s reputation and could result in a generation of disillusioned voters.

“The Lib Dems tried to paint themselves as the nice guys of politics and said that they were ‘different’ and somehow more trustworthy.

“Mr Clegg has not only damaged his own reputation but has tarnished the reputation of politics in the eyes of a generation of students.”