Will tuition fees return to haunt the Labour Party?

Tactical voting by angry students could cost MPs such as Charles Clarke their seats.

Unlike the last general election when university tuition fees figured large, higher education is likely to have a lower profile this time round. That's because the two biggest parties, Labour and the Conservatives, have done a deal to kick the fees issue into the long grass. They have set up a review, chaired by the former BP boss Lord Browne, which is looking at the options for student funding, including charging students more by lifting the cap on fees that stand at just over £3,000 a year. That review will not be completed until the autumn, well after the election is over.

So, just as they did in 1997 with the Dearing review that ushered in tuition fees, the two political parties have got together to ensure that student funding is not a party political football.

But they had reckoned without the Liberal Democrats. If there is a hung parliament – and the balance of power is held by the LibDems – we could be in for interesting times. And certainly at local level, there could be some upsets. One such area is Norwich South, where Charles Clarke, the architect of top-up fees, could be unseated if a student-inspired campaign persuade people to vote tactically. According to a poll from University of East Anglia students, fewer than one in 10 residents want to see higher fees.

Tuition fees

The Liberal Democrats, unlike the other two big parties, are against tuition fees and accuse Labour and the Tories of "a conspiracy" to keep their plans to hike fees off the agenda until after the election. They want fees scrapped for full and part-time students and they plan to find the money from a variety of sources – by getting rid of a quango or two and ending some other programmes.

In reality, the Liberal Democrats are split among themselves, with the party radicals and some others such as Evan Harris, MP for Oxford West and Abingdon, standing resolutely against fees and many in the leadership realising that the public finances do not allow them to scrap fees.

Therefore the party's leaders have struck a compromise with the grassroots that fees would be phased out over a period of six years. In the first year, final year students would see their fees abolished, in the second year part-time fees would begin to be scrapped, and eventually in the final year all first degree students would pay nothing.

If the Liberal Democrats find themselves holding the balance of power after 6 May, they have a list of demands that they will put to whichever party has the largest number of seats. There is a long wish-list of demands, some of which will be dropped, and there is a shortlist that really matters. Ending tuition fees is on the long list but is conspicuous by its absence from the short list.

However, it is one thing for the party's leaders to put abolition of fees on hold. It's quite another for them to agree with the Tories and Labour to raise fees, as the Browne committee is expected to recommend.

So, if there is a hung parliament and if the Browne review recommends that students should pay more, this could precipitate a political crisis with the Liberal Democrats at loggerheads with other parties and refusing to cooperate.

Student numbers

In a higher education system that receives so much funding from the state, student numbers are controlled from the centre to ensure public finances do not run out of control. This becomes an issue when there are more applicants for university than there are places, which is the case at the moment.

All parties are vying with one another as to who will add more places into the system. Thus, in his recent budget the Labour Chancellor Alastair Darling, as if by magic, found another 20,000 places for students next year with money from the Treasury coffers; the Conservatives' higher education spokesman David Willetts has promised another 10,000 with money garnered from allowing graduates to pay off their student loans early; and the Liberal Democrats have said they will fund another 15,000 places for those on two-year foundation degrees in 2010-11.

Research assessment

The Conservatives are seeking to win the academic vote by promising to delay the new research assessment framework which replaces the research assessment exercise as a way of distributing £1.5bn for research quality. Willetts has said he will postpone this by up to two years, if the Conservatives win the election, to allow time for a thorough review of plans to measure the wider social and economic impact of research.

Willetts also has plans to increase the incentives for academics to concentrate on teaching as opposed to research and wants to improve the information available to students about courses and universities.He makes no mention of cuts. And, of course, cuts are the one thing that universities expect to experience after 6 May.

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