Fees defeat 'would mean fewer students'

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A vote against higher tuition fees would lead to massive reductions in student numbers, the leader of a group representing the UK's universities said today.

Universities UK president Professor Steve Smith re-pledged his "conditional" support for Government plans to charge students as much as £9,000 a year in fees from 2012.

But, speaking in central London at an event titled Preventing a Funding Crisis in Higher Education, Aaron Porter, president of the National Union of Students (NUS), rejected the idea there was a threat to funding.

He said if MPs voted against the increase in fees later this year, the Government would be forced to rethink its spending plans.

Prof Smith said there was no official plan B if the vote was not passed, but added: "I'm personally certain that it would consist of massive reductions in student numbers."

He said given the Government was aiming to reduce the higher education budget by 40%, the cuts in student numbers would be "devastating".

He continued: "The economic environment has led to an unpalatable choice between increasing graduate contribution or cutting student numbers.

"Cutting student numbers would do more harm to social mobility than an increased graduate contribution with a progressive repayment mechanism, and more maintenance support for students from low-income backgrounds.

"We understand the concerns raised since the publication of Lord Browne's review and the spending review announcement.

"UUK has consistently opposed disproportionate cuts to the higher education budget.

"Our support for the Government proposals is therefore only conditional on a long-term commitment to public investment in higher education."

He added: "Students, families and universities all deserve to know as soon as possible what the Government is planning for higher education.

"The Government's White Paper may now not be published until March 2011, which for some issues is simply too late for universities.

"For example, we need to know what the Government is planning for student numbers as soon as possible. Many students were unable to get a place at university this summer and we obviously want to avoid this happening again."

Prof Smith said universities were being asked to take a "leap in the dark" and needed answers to questions including how the tuition fee increases would be phased in.

Mr Porter said the title of the event was "slightly odd".

He said: "I don't believe that there really is a threat of a funding crisis.

"Firstly, there has been a decade of record levels of investment.

"But looking to the future, either universities will get their money from tuition fees or they will get their money from Government.

"If Parliament does not approve the increase in tuition fees then the Government will have to rethink its spending plans before the Budget in the spring. It's as simple as that.

"I reject the idea that there is no alternative, partly because no Government will stand by and totally starve our universities of their resources.

"But mainly because the idea is an affront to democracy and the consequences in seats up and down the country is utterly unthinkable.

"It will be down to Parliament to decide whether to endorse the Government's plans or to send them back with orders to come up with another plan."

A crunch Commons vote on the proposals to raise tuition fees will be held before Christmas, Downing Street indicated today.

Prime Minister David Cameron's spokesman said it was "probably a fair assumption" that MPs would be asked to back the measure within weeks.

Number 10 refused to be drawn today over whether Liberal Democrat ministers would be allowed to abstain in the vote.

The party has borne the brunt of the protests after it abandoned election promises to oppose rises - and eventually abolish fees entirely - as part of the coalition deal with the Tories.

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg has publicly backed the changes, which were set out by his party colleague, Business Secretary Vince Cable.

Under the terms of the coalition agreement, Lib Dem MPs would be allowed to abstain if they "cannot accept" the Government's proposals on the issue.

But it remains unclear whether that would trump the principle of collective responsibility for the Lib Dems' 20 ministers - including five in the Cabinet.

Pressed on the issue, the Prime Minister's spokesman said: "Let's wait and see what happens in the vote.

"There is collective responsibility but also this is a coalition Government and there is a coalition agreement which has certain provisions in it.

"Nick Clegg has made various statements on those proposals, as has Vince Cable as the Cabinet minister with responsibility."