Will the tuition fees concessions be enough to win over Lib Dem MPs?

by Stephen Tall on November 3, 2010

It’s three weeks since Vince Cable announced in the House of Commons that he, on behalf of the Coalition Government, supported the broad thrust of The Browne Report’s recommendations — in particular, that tuition fees in England should be increased.

This Lib Dem policy U-turn sparked the biggest outcry among party members of the Coalition to date, with many members regarding opposition to tuition fees as fundamental to a belief in free education and to the party’s broader identity. (See the comments threads here, here and here, for example.)

Lib Dem Voice’s survey of party members suggested that a bare majority, 52%, might be persuadable on tuition fees if Vince brought forward significant changes (41% were wholly opposed to Browne’s recommendations, while 7% were wholly supportive of them). The top two suggestions that earned favour among Lib Dem members were:

  • Increasing the maximum level of maintenance grant to students from families with lower earnings, and increasing the number of families who would benefit; and
  • Variable rates of interest for graduates dependent on their future earnings, with zero or nominal rates for lower-earning graduates and higher rates for top-earning graduates.

David Willetts, the Conservatives’ higher education minister, is just about to announce the Government’s formal response to Browne, but well-placed media reports suggest some concessions have been wrung over the past few weeks, and the following seems to be the package that will be put forward today:

  • a cap on fees of a maximum of £9,000 (Browne proposed no cap);
  • any university charging above £6,000 will have to show support for widening access to students from economically poorer backgrounds, with obligations to fund summer classes, outreach programmes and targeted scholarships;
  • loans to be repayable once students graduate and get a job paying more than £21,000 (compared with the current threshold of £15,000);
  • graduates to pay 9% cent of their income above £21,000 per year to pay off both the loan, and an above-inflation rate of interest;
  • variable rates of interest for graduates with lower rates for lower earners so that no individual’s debt burden will grow from year to year in real terms (Bowne proposed a flat rate regardless of subsequent earnings);
  • graduates wishing to repay all or some of their loan more quickly would have to pay a penalty to compensate for the interest they would no longer pay;
  • but students from wealthier families will still be able to pay up-front for their university education and avoid taking out a loan altogether.

Will this package be enough to persuade Lib Dem MPs they should break their pre-election pledge to oppose any increase in tuition fees. It seems unlikely, at least if Jenny Willott (quoted in today’s Guadian) is any guide:

Jenny Willott, MP for Cardiff Central, and parliamentary private secretary to the climate change secretary Chris Huhne, told the Guardian she would stick to her pre-election pledge to vote against any rise in tuition fees.

She said: “I will not support an increase in tuition fees and I’m deeply concerned about increasing levels of student debt.” If she does, the ministerial code of conduct will require her to resign or be sacked as a PPS. She was not coming under pressure to change her mind, she added.

So is a Government defeat likely? The paper’s report concludes not:

While the coalition allows Lib Dems to abstain, as many as half the 37 backbenchers may chose to go further if they regard the spirit of the policy to be against their pre-election pledge. The government is unlikely to be defeated on this issue unless a dozen Tory MPs were also uncomfortable. Lib Dem sources said that government ministers were considering introducing the measures via other routes than legislation, which could avert the flashpoint of a vote.

That last point in particular could prove controversial. I understand the government doesn’t need to legislate to vary the level of fees — but anything that smacks of circumventing Parliament, while perhaps tactically convenient, is likely to be seen as sharp practice by more than just opponents of the rise in tuition fees.