And this time we mean it...Lib Dems risk backlash with possible election pledge to cut tuition fees
Andrew Grice has been Political Editor of The Independent since 1998. He was previously Political Editor of The Sunday Times, where he worked for 10 years, and he has been a Westminster-based journalist since 1982. His column, Inside Politics, appears in The Independent each Saturday.
Wednesday 16 January 2013
The Liberal Democrats are considering whether to promise to reduce the £9,000 cap on university tuition fees in their manifesto at the next general election.
Senior Liberal Democrats sources told The Independent that the idea is among options being looked at by a working party on higher education policy.
The Government's decision to almost treble the maximum fee to £9,000 a year was the most traumatic one for the Liberal Democrats since the Coalition was formed. At the 2010 election, they pledged to abolish fees, for which Nick Clegg issued a dramatic public apology last September.
Some Liberal Democrats are worried higher fees may be deterring young people from going to university and want their next manifesto to include a plan to set a £6,000 cap, with the government making up an estimated £2bn shortfall in universities' income.
Insiders say the party's decision could be influenced by figures due at the end of this month on the number of student applications. Latest figures from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (Ucas) show a drop of 5.6 per cent on the previous year.
But Vince Cable, the Liberal Democrat Cabinet minister responsible for higher education, is thought unlikely to support a lower cap. The Business Secretary believes the Ucas figures suggest that students from disadvantaged backgrounds have not been put off applying to university, partly because the loans covering fees do not have to be repaid until a graduate earns £21,000 a year.
The Liberal Democrats must make a decision on fees because, despite the Coalition's controversial decision, the party's official policy remains to phase them out. Its manifesto will be decided by the party's policy-making machinery rather than imposed by the leadership.
Cutting the ceiling to £6,000 would be difficult for Mr Clegg. It might look like yet another U-turn on an issue that has dogged his party, and finding an extra £2bn for universities might look unrealistic when public spending is being squeezed.
Labour has already proposed reducing the maximum fee to £6,000, with the money raised by reversing the Government's cut in corporation tax for financial services and increasing the interest rate on loans to the highest-earning graduates.
Nicholas Barr, Professor of Public Economics at the London School of Economics, said today that a lower cap would make sense to ensure enough people have a high-quality university education. He believes the Government went too far by ending the taxpayers' subsidy to universities, and says the axed teaching grant should be partially restored.
"What happened was destabilising for the [higher education] sector and, politically, we need to get back to something like a consensus," he said. He had "no doubt" the £9,000 cap was deterring some people from applying.
However, a 2011 study by CentreForum, a think tank with close links to the Liberal Democrats, found a £6,000 cap would be "clearly regressive", providing most help to graduates in their fifties earning £72,500 a year.
David Willetts, the Conservative Universities Minister, told the Commons last September that Labour's proposed £6,000 cap would do nothing for students, nothing for recent graduates because monthly repayments would not be reduced, and provide no help for the poorest graduates, who would be better off under the Government's scheme because they will not have to repay loans in full.
- 1 UK's biggest male rape charity Survivors UK has state funding slashed to zero despite 120% rise in men reporting sexual violence and seeking help
- 2 'Don't blame all men for rape' campaign backfires spectacularly
- 3 Isis burns woman alive for refusing to engage in 'extreme' sex act, UN says
- 4 Puerto Rico, island of lost dreams: People are leaving the debt-hit territory in droves as near neighbour Cuba's star rises
- 5 Charlie Charlie Challenge explained: not a Mexican demon being summoned — it's gravity
UK's biggest male rape charity Survivors UK has state funding slashed to zero despite 120% rise in men reporting sexual violence and seeking help
Iran launches anti-Isis cartoon competition 'to expose true nature of Islamic State'
Priest warns pupils the 'Charlie Charlie Challenge' is 'demonic activity'
Tinder and Grindr dating apps blamed for surge in cases of HIV, syphilis and other STDs
Fifa corruption arrests: Sepp Blatter 'quite relaxed' and confident he is 'not involved'
EU referendum: David Cameron's rules are a 'democratic disgrace', says French-born Scottish politician set to be denied a vote
The day that Britain resigned as a global power
SNP fury as HS2 finds 'no business case' for taking fast train service to Scotland
Australian man punched in the face for defending Muslim women from abuse on train
A nation of inequality: How the UK is failing to feed its most vulnerable people
EU referendum: David Cameron to deny EU migrants and under-18s the chance to vote
£22,400: The Grange Retirement Home: This is a key role which requires a sound...
£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £45K YR1: SThree: At SThree, we like to be dif...
£30 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: A Software / Web Developer (PHP / MYSQL) i...
£18 - 20k + Benefits: Guru Careers: An Account Executive is needed to join one...