The Liberal Democrat leadership faces a showdown with party activists over plans to ditch its flagship policy of abolishing tuition fees at the 2015 general election.
David Laws, the former cabinet minister and key adviser in Nick Clegg's team, told The Independent on Sunday he would be "very surprised" if the policy was included in the party's next election manifesto. He warned that Britain has become a "caste-like society", where the poorest struggle "to do well in life".
Mr Laws told The IoS: "Given all the pressures on public finances, I would be very surprised if that proposal finds its way into the... manifesto. Nobody should expect students to be grateful that the taxpayer has transferred an extra burden on to their shoulders.... But actually what we have created is a fairer, more progressive system."
Money was better targeted at the pupil premium and early-years education. "There's no use simply putting that money into free education over the age of 18 when most goes to affluent students who do well in [our] caste-like society."
An attempt to water down the policy in 2009 sparked a furious backlash, which meant that Lib Dems pledged to abolish fees in the 2010 election manifesto. The policy was then predicted to cost £1.8bn by 2014/15. Instead, Mr Clegg became a national hate figure when the coalition lifted the cap on annual fees from £3,290 to £9,000. Officially, abolition of fees remains party policy.
Mr Laws also revealed plans for a refreshed coalition agreement later this year. A document dubbed "Coalition 2.0" has been shelved, but a new list of priorities is being drawn up by Danny Alexander, the Lib Dem Treasury minister, and Oliver Letwin, the Tories' policy guru. Mr Laws said: "We need to produce a slimmed-down list of the big things we are going to achieve in the next two and a half years."
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