The Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg says that all his party’s Ministers will support plans to raise university tuition fees following a meeting of MPs at Westminster.
Mr Clegg told Lib Dem MPs that he wanted them to “walk through the fire” with him in supporting the Government in Thursday’s Commons vote to allow universities to increase tuition fees to a maximum of £9,000 a year.
After the meeting, he said that it had been agreed that all Ministers would do so, but that Parliamentary Private Secretaries (PPSs) – or ministerial aides – would be allowed to abstain under the terms of the Coalition Agreement. He did not answer the question of whether they would be forced to resign if they voted against the Government.
“I have listened to the debate. I have listened to the protesters. I have listened to my own party,” he said.
“And having done that I can announce that all Liberal Democrat Ministers – every single one – will vote for this measure when it comes to the vote on Thursday.”
He said the measure was the best and fairest way to ensure that Britain would have world-class universities for generations to come and that young people from all backgrounds would be able to go to those universities “irrespective of the circumstances of their birth”.
On PPSs, he added: “All Government Ministers and I have urged them to take up the opportunity in the Coalition Agreement to abstain if they don’t like the policy.”
Tonight’s deal means that the two Ministers who had been rumoured to have doubts about the policy – Equalities Minister Lynne Featherstone and Pensions Minister Steve Webb – have both fallen into line and will support the Government.
It is a sensitive issue for the party because all Lib Dem MPs signed a pledge organised by the National Union of Students in the run-up to the election saying they would vote against a rise in fees.
As he prepared for the showdown, Mr Clegg claimed the Government would turn universities into “engines of social mobility”.
“In an ideal world it would not be necessary to ask graduates to pay more towards the cost of their degree. But we do not live in an ideal world.” Nick Clegg
In an article in the Financial Times, he said the Coalition faced a choice between increasing fees or having to “slash university places”.
He added: “In an ideal world it would not be necessary to ask graduates to pay more towards the cost of their degree. But we do not live in an ideal world. We have an economic mess to clear up.
“The uncomfortable truth is that the growth in the university population in recent years has done little or nothing to boost social mobility. The student population has become more middle-class dominated.
“The coalition is intent on making our universities more effective engines of social mobility.
“The Liberal Democrats said when we entered the coalition that we would judge HE (higher education) reform proposals against the goals of promoting social mobility, and improving the social diversity of university intakes.
“The new system should achieve these aims, although it will of course be many years before we know for sure.
“History teaches that the best and longest-lasting reforms are controversial when introduced. Right now, our plans are causing plenty of controversy. But I am confident that they will stand the test of time.”
And in the universities themselves, anger still rages over tuition fees: sit-in students refuse to leave