Ministers retreat over tuition fees

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The Independent Online
THE PROSPECT of students being forced to contribute to their tuition fees from next year is receding amid fears of a parliamentary revolt if the Government tries to force it through.

Doubts among senior ministers about the political wisdom of making savings in higher education by charging for tuition is adding to the pressure to find savings elsewhere. They emerged yesterday as the special Cabinet spending committee, EDX, began considering spending cuts in advance of the Budget.

The prospect of student contributions - possibly through loans or a graduate tax - was floated by John Patten, the Secretary of State for Education, in September.

The Treasury is keen to reduce the cost of tuition fees to the public purse, and has some backing from Mr Patten who believes that savings could be used to fund further expansion of higher education.

But government business managers are thought to be chary about adding further to the burden of securing a continued parliamentary majority for VAT on domestic fuel and legislation required by other savings, including a highly probable reduction in invalidity benefit.

The EDX session, which will be resumed this week, came amid clear signs that local councils face a tough spending squeeze and that capital infrastructure spending on prestige projects - deliberately protected in last year's spending round - could be a casualty of the current intense negotiations. Kenneth Clarke, the Chancellor, is considering bringing forward the second stage of VAT on fuel at 17.5 per cent to next April and other extensions of the VAT base will be considered when Treasury ministers consider their budget strategy at Chevening this weekend.

Harriet Harman, shadow Chief Secretary, complained yesterday that the Government was considering infrastructure cuts 'just as recent business surveys are highlighting the fragility of the recovery'.

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