Lords sound alarm over university 'privatisation' – but fees plan survives

Ministers accused of 'carpet-bombing' higher education but peers vote in favour of Coalition's policy of trebling costs from 2012

Plans to raise student tuition fees to up to £9,000 a year cleared Parliament last night after a heated House of Lords debate in which ministers were accused of destroying universities with swingeing cuts.

Attempts to delay or water down the increases were comfortably defeated – but only after protests from academics that the near-trebling of fees from £3,290 could deter teenagers from poorer backgrounds from taking degrees.

Critics protested that the rises – described by one peer as a "game-changer" for higher education – were being hurried through without proper consultation.

The debate followed last week's dramatic Commons vote in which the Coalition Government won a narrow majority for the planned rises which have prompted violent demonstrations across central London.

Last night a Labour attempt to block an increase in the basic level of fees to £6,000 was defeated by 283 votes to 215, a majority of 68. Peers then voted by 273 to 200, a majority of 73, to support raising the fee cap to £9,000 from 2012.

The Government insisted the increases were an essential element in moves to tackle Britain's huge debts. It will now attempt to switch focus in the new year to planned measures to boost the numbers of young people from less well-off backgrounds applying to universities.

Liberal Democrat peers maintained a greater show of unity than the party's MPs on the issue, but Baroness Sharp of Guildford, a former higher education spokeswoman, spoke out against the "sharp hike".

She said: "I do find myself in a dilemma, I don't hide that. I think there are elements of this package that are very fair and very right and very proper.

"But I end up by feeling that there are other elements in it which I don't understand and I think are unfair."

Lord Bilmoria, the former chancellor of Thames Valley University, told peers he recognised fees had to rise, but called for the increases to be phased in over several years to protect universities' excellence. He said: "We all know the finances in this country are in a dire, dire situation, we all know cuts need to be made."

But, speaking from the crossbenches, he added: "There are cuts and there is carpet-bombing."

He said: "This is no time for a sledgehammer – this is a time to nurture and protect this country's competitive edge."

A former higher education minister, Lord Triesman, accused the Government of attempting to drive through the "privatisation" of universities.

He said: "This decision will switch the concept of universities from being a public good, as they have always been through modern history, to essentially a private sector, market-driven by personal private investment.

"Stripped back to the realities, this is a 200 per cent starting fee hike and, for most, it will be a 300 per cent increase. It will result in all probability across the board in about a 300 per cent increase in student debt."

Lady Blackstone, a former education minister and a former master of Birkbeck College, said education was "an investment, not a subsidy". She said the plans had caused "misery and despair" among academics.

But Lord Henley, speaking for the Government, told the Lords that ministers had put together a "progressive package" which would benefit both students and universities.

He added: "We can no longer ask the taxpayer to continue the current level of higher education funding. We want to maintain a high quality university sector more responsive to the needs of students and which is underpinned by a progressive system of graduate contribution. What we are proposing will allow those universities and colleges that can attract students to get the high quality funding they need."

He received the backing of Lord Browne of Madingley, whose report on the funding of higher education – commissioned by the previous government – formed the basis of the proposals.

He said there was no evidence of higher fees deterring less well-off teenagers from going to university.

The Rt Rev John Saxbee, the Bishop of Lincoln, said: "It is simply counter-intuitive to believe students will commit to this size of debt for a benefit that cannot be guaranteed."

He called for a debate on whether allowing young adults to accumulate such debts was "morally defensible or socially sustainable".

Professor Lord Krebs, principal of Jesus College, Oxford, a crossbencher, said the proposal was "not justified and fair". He asked ministers: "How can you justify cutting public support for universities when we are already spending less as a proportion of... public spending than countries such as Hungary, Mexico, Poland or Brazil?"

The former Tory cabinet minister Lord Patten of Barnes, chancellor of the University of Oxford, said peers should know from experience that "the taxpayer isn't going to provide the money – so the only revenue stream left is the student".

The plans were approved by a majority of 21 in the Commons, but the vast majority of Liberal Democrat backbenchers opposed the rise.

Firth abandons Lib Dems

Colin Firth, the most prominent celebrity supporter of the Liberal Democrats, has turned his back on the party in protest over tuition fees.

The star of Pride and Prejudice campaigned alongside Nick Clegg in the general election seven months ago. But yesterday he took a swipe at policy switches made by the party since it entered into Coalition.

"My compass hasn't stopped spinning," Firth said at the Dubai Film Festival, where he was promoting his latest film, The King's Speech. "It's profoundly disillusioning if you are a student who has registered to vote simply because of what the Liberal Democrats were promising – and many, many did. It's one of the reasons I went in that direction."

Firth did not condemn Mr Clegg for striking the deal with the Tories but said the Coalition "made it difficult for us who thought progressive politics would be the way forward".

Nigel Morris

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Education

WORLDbytes: Two-Day Intensive Camera training and Shoot: Saturday 7th & Sunday 8th March

expenses on shoots: WORLDbytes: Volunteering with a media based charity,for a ...

Tradewind Recruitment: Year 4 Teacher

£90 - £140 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: A school in Tameside is currently l...

Tradewind Recruitment: SEN Teaching Assistant

£50 - £70 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: Tradewind are currently looking for ...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Advisor - OTE £30,000

£15000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Day In a Page

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003