Outrage in Westminster as Lib Dems ‘betray’ students

By Ian Dunt

Lib Dem business secretary Vince Cable was accused of damaging the public’s trust in all politicians today as he prepared to back Lord Browne’s review into university funding.

The review directly contradicts Lib Dem promises not to raise tuition fees made during the general election campaign.

Issuing a preliminary statement to the Commons today, business secretary Vince Cable said the government endorsed “the main thrust” of the report.

He insisted, however, that the government remained “open to suggestions” about how to make the plans more progressive.

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“Promises were made. which should not be lightly thrown away,” new shadow business secretary John Denham said in response.

“The trust in politicians is not just matter for the Liberal Democrats.”

Cabinet-level Lib Dems now seem highly likely to back the proposals, which would introduce a full-blown market in university courses.

It is still unclear how many Lib Dem MPs can be convinced to back the proposals, or whether many of them will abstain or even rebel against the plans.

Mr Cable has suggested that the next few weeks will see new aspects added to the review to make it more progressive.

He even suggested that fees could be capped at £7,000, even though the review suggested the cap should be scrapped altogether.

“We are considering a level of £7,000,” Mr Cable said.

“Many universities and colleges may well decide to charge less than that, since there is clearly scope for greater efficiency and innovation in the way universities operate. Two-year ordinary degrees are one approach.”

In an emotional and dramatic afternoon in the Commons Mr Cable urged the Labour opposition to “face reality”.

“I am confronting this issue of the [Lib Dems’ election] pledge, the promise,” he said.

“Under current economic circumstances we cannot implement that. I fully accept that.

“Like a lot of people here I was the first person in my family to stay on at school after 18. I went to university free of charge,” he added.

“I wanted to make sure my children’s generation should enjoy that free system of university education. In an ideal world that’s what we would do.

“We are not in an ideal world. We’re in a world where we have encountered a massive financial mess. We are facing reality.”

The Browne review suggests the current £3,290 cap be lifted altogether but that any institution which charges over £6,000 should be the subject of a levy to make sure they contribute to supporting poorer students.

Lord Browne said: “We must not flinch from putting a value on education.”

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“Once we do this, we will allow generations of students to reshape their higher education experience. Their choices will build a vibrant, well-funded and tailored university sector.”

Despite the lifting of the fees cap, Liberal Democrats will be heartened by the progressive elements of Lord Browne’s report, which aims to raise the income threshold at which students have to pay back the fees.

No student will pay back any money until they are earning over £21,000, and even then the payments are small – as little as £7 a week.

The current threshold is £15,000.

“Students do not pay anything upfront,” Lord Browne said.

“Only graduates pay and only then according to the level of their success. Under our proposals, the bottom 20% of earners will pay less than today and only the top 40% of earners will pay back close to the full amount.”

Greg Mulholland, Lib Dem MP for Leeds North West, told the BBC he would vote against any increase in fees.

“I’m going to stick to what I said before the election,” he said.

“I’m going to resist any attempt to increase fees. And I believe there are other colleagues who will do the same.”

Martin Shapland, chairman of Liberal Youth, the party’s student wing, said: “You simply cannot build our future on debt. This move has the potential to cripple students with unprecedented levels of debt which will act as a real deterrent to those from poorer backgrounds seeking a better life through the education system.

“Higher fees will not be acceptable to grassroots Lib Dems and, I imagine, most of the parliamentary party.”

The Scottish National party (SNP) said the party had “betrayed” students.

SNP business Mike Weir demanded Lib Dem MPs join opposition parties in rejecting an increase in fees.

“The Lib Dems made much of their opposition to fees across numerous constituencies with large student populations,” he said.

“They cannot let them down now and must declare their opposition now.”

Student groups are livid at a report which opens up a free market in tuition fees, and could soon see graduates from top tier universities saddled with tens of thousands of pounds worth of debt.

National Union of Students president Aaron Porter said: “To make the next generation pick up the bill for cuts and force students to pay even more for less would be both unsustainable and unjust.

“Lord Browne is clearly dangerously out of touch with the pressures faced by students and their families. The government must reject proposals that would recklessly undermine our future by ending the notion of public higher education.”

UCU general secretary Sally Hunt said: “This is a savage attack on what a university is and what it can offer to all students – not just those with deep pockets – as it effectively privatises the cost of higher education from state to family.

“Browne’s proposals would make our public degrees the most expensive in the world. At an enormous cost of between £40,000 and £70,000 for one child’s education, it would be the final nail in the coffin for an affordable university degree for many ordinary families.”

The review factored in a ten per cent expansion in university places over the next three years, predicting a heightened demand for higher education.

It also proposed an overhaul of career advice provisions, with Lord Browne demanding a career advice service in schools based on the private sector model.

“We must overhaul the way pupils are advised when still in school,” Lord Browne said.

“We must end the days when a minority of schools get unfair advantages because of their expertise in plotting entry to the best institutions.”

The report also suggested giving part-time students tuition support under the student finance plan as a means of encouraging those people in middle age to go back into education.

The Browne review was originally commissioned by Labour, but it was enthusiastically embraced by the coalition as a means of kicking their differences over university funding into the long grass.

Labour, which originally introduced tuition fees, is now implacably opposed to any effort to raise the cap. Leader Ed Miliband is a supporter of a graduate tax paid exclusively by university graduates.

The coalition considered that option but ruled it out on the basis that it would do nothing to help cut the deficit until 2040.