Will Lib Dems keep their pledge to oppose tuition fees rise?

The dust has barely settled on the new Cabinet appointments, and today the Russell Group of universities has advocated the removal of the cap on student fees.

The dust has barely settled on the new Cabinet appointments, and today the elite Russell Group of universities has advocated the removal of the cap on student fees – currently £3,225 a year – which would mean many students leaving university with mortgage-style debts in excess of £40,000. Not only would this fully expose students and their families to the huge risks and the potential calamities of the market, but it would leave thousands of potential students facing the choice of where to study not on where is best for them, but rather how much debt they are prepared to take on.

With any vote in the Commons now relying on consensus beyond the Conservative Party in order to be passed, attempting to raise fees in this Parliament would now appear to be political suicide. There is no public support for fees to rise, and polling in the run up to the general election showed 9 out of 10 people opposed any increase in fees.

Five hundred Liberal Democrat candidates – including all five Lib Dems in the coalition Cabinet: Nick Clegg, Chris Huhne, Danny Alexander, David Laws and Vince Cable – tapped into this deep public concern by signing NUS’s Vote for Students pledge:

“To vote against any increase in fees and to pressure the government to introduce a fairer alternative.”

Sunday’s special conference in Birmingham agreed amendments to the coalition agreement that would allow their 57 MPs to honour their pledges to their constituents, therefore proving an insurmountable obstacle should the Conservatives try and raise fees.

Almost 100 Labour MPs have also signed NUS’s pledge, including Jon Cruddas, Chuka Umunna, Phil Woolas, Gisela Stuart, Karen Buck and Joan Ruddock. Others such as potential leadership contender Ed Balls are proposing a rethink on student fees in light of the economic climate students currently face, but also in light of the Top Up fee debate in 2006 being regarded as one of the lowest points of the Blair/Brown era. Labour leadership candidates would be well placed acknowledging this and putting forward an alternative direction of travel.

It is clear to us, that Labour must also consider its position on student finance and university funding more broadly and we will be asking all MPs to discuss with us our costed proposals for a sophisticated graduate tax, which would be a fairer and more sustainable alternative to the current system.

The proposals from the Russell Group would be a nightmare outcome for the Funding Review and former BP chief executive Lord Browne, who is currently heading this review should rule them out. These proposals neglect to acknowledge that universities have failed to improve the quality of what they offer despite fees trebling in 2006, with student satisfaction actually falling amongst graduates who paid three times what their predecessors paid.

The Russell Group’s calls to make students pick up the bill and pay more for less or the same is brazenly opportunistic but also politically naive. The reality is that the balance of the new Parliament will require sensible debate and consensus if changes are to be made to higher education and student funding.

It is disappointing and short-sighted of the Russell Group to pretend that the only way to pay for universities’ funding shortcomings it to do down higher education and talk of crisis in order to excuse foisting their nightmare solution upon us. Universities are an engine both of social mobility and economic recovery. They are a national asset that provide huge opportunities to people. It is vital to think carefully about how to fairly and sustainably fund our higher education and our students.‬

Politically fees has always been a contentious issue, the delicate balance in the Commons makes this more of a hot potato than ever before. Students aren’t prepared to be the easy target once again, so politicians need to ensure any decision they take has our support, and not our opposition.

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