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University challenge: Despite higher fees, there are more students than ever

The time has come for angry Liberal Democrats to move on

When the newly created Coalition set out plans to allow universities to treble tuition charges to as much as £9,000 per year, there were dire warnings that the less well-off would be all-but excluded from tertiary education and that the wonder of learning for learning’s sake would be pushed aside by the need for a career.

But if the issue was tricky enough for the Conservative leadership, six of whose MPs rebelled, it was catastrophic for the Liberal Democrats, who had made opposition to fees central to their political identity ever since Tony Blair introduced them in 2003. Nick Clegg faced taunts of “Judas” and poll ratings for the Government’s junior partner tumbled to lows from which they are yet to recover.

This newspaper saw no alternative but to raise university tuition fees. Our preference would, of course, be for a world-class tertiary education system paid for by the state and available to all with the capability and inclination to avail themselves of it. With the number of prospective students ever rising and the public purse already over-stretched, though, it is simply not affordable. There were two options. One was to restrict the number of places; the other was to ask those who benefit from degrees – namely, students – to pay a larger portion of the cost. The latter is not only the most effective solution, it is also the most equitable, given that there is no upfront cost to studying and that repayments only start once a graduate’s salary tops £21,000.

There are still wrinkles to be ironed out. The Government naively expected that only a few, top institutions would charge the full £9,000 per year. Instead, the vast majority do, and elite universities are already pressing for the cap to be ditched so that they can go higher. It certainly makes little sense for most degrees to have the same price tag, regardless of the quality of the teaching or the cost of providing it. That said, it may be less illustrious establishments that are forced to think again, if prospective undergraduates baulk at their prices.

When it comes to the blunt effect on student numbers, however, hard data is now taking the place of predictions. And after two intakes since the new system took effect in 2012, it seems that £27,000-worth of debts has not been a deterrent after all. A record number of students enrolled at a university this autumn, outstripping even the bumper year just before fees went up. More encouraging still, there is little evidence that those from poorer backgrounds are staying away; disadvantaged 18-year-olds are 70 per cent more likely to go on to higher education now than they were a decade ago. Even the warnings that more cash-conscious undergraduates would choose to live at home, diminishing university’s status as a rite of passage, now appear melodramatic. As we report today, more youngsters than ever before are going away to study.

All of which is good news for universities and students both. It should also give pause to Mr Clegg’s vitriolic ex-supporters. The U-turn on tuition fees crystallised the discontent at his decision to share power with the Conservatives. And yet, just as an increase in charges was the right choice for our education sector, so a coalition government was the right choice for our country. It is time for Liberal Democrats, current and former, to move on.