8 Dec 2010

Nick Clegg defends tuition fees ahead of vote

The Government offers concessions on student tuition fees in an effort to head off a Liberal Democrat rebellion. Nick Clegg tells Channel 4 News the policy is the “right thing to do”.

The Government has offered a series of concessions on student tuition fees – in an effort to head off a rebellion by Liberal Democrat backbenchers when MPs vote on the controverisal plans tomorrow.

The Business Secretary, Vince Cable, said more part-time students would no longer have to pay upfront fees – while the salary threshold at which graduates must start repaying their loans will increase.

At the moment, starting in 2016, graduates will begin making repayments once their salary reaches £15,000. However that’ll now go up to £21,000 – and the threshold will be increased every year, rather than once every five years.

And part time undergraduates who study for just 25 per cent of their time will now be able to claim full loan assistance to cover the cost of their course – rather than 33 per cent under the Government’s current proposals.

That is expected to benefit an extra 25,000 part time students, many from less well off backgrounds. The changes to the earnings threshold should mean another 120,000 students won’t have to make loan repayments.

Mr Cable claimed the changes would mean a “significantly fairer and more progressive new system” – calling it a better deal for students who were still in education – and fairer repayments for those who’d finished their studies.

Protests to continue

The National Union of Students, which has planned a series of demonstrations today and tomorrow, said its protests will carry on – saying the concessions showed politicians and the public were not comfortable with the whole idea of higher fees.

It would mean a significantly fairer and more progressive new system. Vince Cable

NUS President Aaron Porter said £3bn in funding was still being taken out of higher education, with the cost passed on to students. “That will not satisfy those on the streets that we have seen in recent weeks, and I am sure those that will continue to protest today and tomorrow”, he added.

The head of the University and College Union, Sally Hunt, said if the Government really wanted to make concessions, they should stop trying “to triple fees and decimate teaching budgets. Failure to do so risks putting university out of reach for thousands of families.”

And Labour‘s John Denham said tomorrow’s vote should be delayed – claiming the changes had only been made after a series of challenges by Labour. He said it would still leave Britain with “the highest fees of any public university system in the industrialised world.”

Number crunching ahead of the key vote
About half a dozen Tory MPs are muttering about rebelling over tuition fees tomorrow night and the number of Lib Dem MPs currently telling their whips that they intend to vote against has gone up from 13, writes Political Editor Gary Gibbon.

Plenty of time between now and the vote for those numbers to alter again.

David Davis will have the company of former Tory frontbencher Julian Lewis MP in the "No" lobby tomorrow night. Others, like Lee Scott and Tracy Crouch, may yet be imposed upon to come round or abstain. Chancellor George Osborne is being deployed to talk potential Tory dissidents through the arguments and encourage them to see things his way.

Read more from Gary Gibbon on the Politics Blog

The changes come after a showdown last night between Lib Dem MPs and the party leader Nick Clegg – who urged them to “walk through the fire” and back the the original plans, which could see some fees treble to £9,000 a year.

Although all 17 Lib Dem ministers have now promised to vote yes, a number of prominent backbenchers are still thought to be opposed, including the party’s president Tim Farron, and former leaders Charles Kennedy and Sir Menzies Campbell.

Before the general election, the Lib Dems had pledged to phase out tuition fees altogether – and also promised to oppose any future increases from the current level of £3,290 a year.

Backbenchers’ revolt

Two Conservative MPs have also said they’ll vote against the increase in fees – the former shadow Home Secretary David Davis, and former frontbencher Julian Lewis.

It is all making the whips extremely nervy: the sheer size of the potential rebellion means the Government’s majority could be very tight. Climate Change Secretary Chris Huhne and one of his ministers could even be flown home from a climate change conference in Cancun in order to back the Coalition.

It has been estimate that flying Mr Huhne home and then back to Cancun will generate an extra 4301 lbs (1950kg) of carbon.

In the Commons a short time ago, the leader of the opposition Ed Miliband said the higher education system would be left without proper funding – and claimed fees were being increased in order to fill the gap.

He accused the Prime Minister of failing to understand young people’s concerns about being saddled with debts of up to £40,000 to pay for their studies, and said no-one really believed it would result in a better deal for students.

Student politician

David Cameron hit back – accusing Mr Miliband of complete opportunism – while behaving like a student politician … “and that’s all he’ll ever be” . The Labour leader had an answer to that one, though – agreeing he had once been involved in student politics, but hadn’t hung around with people smashing up restaurants and chucking bread rolls – a not-too-veiled reference to Mr Cameron’s time at Oxford, when he was a member of the ultra-elitist Bullingdon Club.

As for Nick Clegg, today he was fending off angry callers during a phone in show on BBC Radio 5 Live. He told them most graduates wouldn’t ever have to pay off the full cost of their student loans – either because they’d get the remaining debt written off after 30 years, or they’d never reach the new £21,000 earnings threshold for repayments.

And he insisted the new system would make university education a lot cheaper because graduates would be able to repay their loans more gradually – telling one caller “It makes it close to £70 a month cheaper to go to university than is currently the case.”