Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg faces a rebellion amongst the Liberal Democrats as his calls to abandon the party’s pre-election pledge to vote against any rise in tuition fees were faced with criticism from his own ranks. Some MPs openly stated that they would not support the proposals of the coalition.
The revolt is expected to have little effect in actually blocking the proposals – most of the twenty three members of the party in government positions are expected to vote for the rise in fees – meaning that in order for the planned rise to be blocked, a significant number of Conservative backbenchers would also have to vote against the coalition.
There has been widespread condemnation for the proposed fee-rise, and it has been suggested that universities will undergo a divide similar to the old University/Polytechnic separation of the past. Referring David Barclay, of the Oxford University Students’ Union remarked, “It’s not impossible to imagine a situation where a graduate going to an interview is asked, did you go to a ‘cap 6’ university or a ‘cap 9’ university?” While the basic threshold for fees would be £6,000 per year, in universities that offered an adequate range of scholarships would be able to charge up to £9,000 per year.
Meanwhile, even within the Liberal Democrats’ ‘payroll vote’, there are signs of dissent. “I will not support an increase in tuition fees and I’m deeply concerned about increasing levels of student debt,” responded Liberal Democrat MP Jenny Willot, when asked whether she would support the party line. It is thought that her stance might force her to resign as a parliamentary private secretary.
With the core leadership of the Liberal Democrats seemingly so determined to back the Conservative line, the party looks destined to undergo a period of intense soul-searching, with many backbenchers left wondering what other core principles the leadership will sacrifice in order to remain in the sphere of power. What is obvious, however, is the need for higher education funding to come from somewhere. As the Russell Group have noted, in light of the savage cuts that will hit universities, it is the “only way for the UK to remain a serious global player in higher education”.