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 Nigel Farage: Me vs Russell Brand on Question Time – he's got the chest hair but where are his ideas?
- 2 Harry Potter fans can apply to the Hogwarts-inspired College of Wizardry
- 3 Jessica Chambers: 19-year-old woman 'doused with lighter fluid and burned alive' in the US
- 4 Russell Brand calls Nigel Farage 'poundshop Enoch Powell' in BBC Question Time debate
- 5 Orange Wednesdays are no more
Weather bomb in pictures: Storms cuts power for tens of thousands – and snow is on the way
Jessica Chambers: 19-year-old woman 'doused with lighter fluid and burned alive' in the US
Russell Brand calls Nigel Farage 'poundshop Enoch Powell' in BBC Question Time debate
Russell Brand was rendered speechless on Question Time by this man
Fury at Airbus after it hints the super-jumbo may be mothballed
Disgruntled RBS worker writes hilarious open letter to Russell Brand after anti-capitalist publicity stunt leaves him hungry
Nigel Farage's approval rating hits 'record low' as popularity suffers in wake of Ukip sex scandal
Nigel Farage defends Kerry Smith 'ch***y' comment: 'If you are going for a Chinese, what do you say you’re going for?'
Pakistan school attack live: Taliban kill at least 132 children in 'horrifying' massacre
Sony hack: Angelina Jolie branded 'seriously out of her mind' in further embarrassing leaked email saga
Panic Saturday: 13 million Britons spend £1.2bn – while 13 million others across the country live in poverty unable to afford food
£65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...
£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity fo...
£50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...
£27000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: A Quality Technician...