Nick Clegg fights to quell tuition fees rebellion

Deputy PM asks Liberal Democrat MPs to support near tripling of university tuition fees despite pre-election pledge

Nick Clegg will today battle to head off a revolt within the Liberal Democrats as the government announces that a cap on university tuition fees in England will be set at a maximum of £9,000 a year.

While rejecting the recommendation of Lord Browne's review of higher education funding for unlimited fees, the Liberal Democrat leader faces the prospect of a large rebellion now he is asking his MPs to support a near tripling of fees despite all of them having signed a pre-election pledge they would not support any rise beyond the current £3,290 a year.

Jenny Willott, MP for Cardiff Central, and parliamentary private secretary to the climate change secretary Chris Huhne, told the Guardian she would stick to her pre-election pledge to vote against any rise in tuition fees.

She said: "I will not support an increase in tuition fees and I'm deeply concerned about increasing levels of student debt." If she does, the ministerial code of conduct will require her to resign or be sacked as a PPS. She was not coming under pressure to change her mind, she added.

David Willetts, the universities minister, will introduce a low threshold of £6,000 and a high threshold of £9,000. Universities which charge beyond £6,000 will be required to demonstrate they are doing all they can to attract students from poorer backgrounds with either outreach programmes to schools in disadvantaged communities and/or schools in areas where there has traditionally been a low number going to university through targeted scholarships.

If a university charging £9,000 is not able to demonstrate to the Office of Fair Access it is making sufficient progress, it will be asked to return some of the funds raised from the increased fees and that pot of money will be channelled to institutions or schemes that are successfully increasing access to university. It is unclear exactly how this will work and universities and Tory MPs have warned they are uncomfortable with the new conditionality on universities, regarding it to be social engineering. But universities are likely to be pleased after lobbying government for a fee of at least £9,000, saying that is the cost of educating students and that the government reduced significantly the funding it gave higher education in the comprehensive spending review.

There have been disagreements inside government over a Vince Cable proposal to fine well-off students who are able to repay their debts most quickly. Cable would like to bring in some kind of mortgage-style fine for early repayment but it is unlikely to be in Willetts's statement.

A senior government source said they were hopeful the conditionality of the new higher rates would be enough to reassure backbenchers that the new policy would fit pledges to increase access to university. While the coalition allows Lib Dems to abstain, as many as half the 37 backbenchers may chose to go further if they regard the spirit of the policy to be against their pre-election pledge. The government is unlikely to be defeated on this issue unless a dozen Tory MPs were also uncomfortable. Lib Dem sources said that government ministers were considering introducing the measures via other routes than legislation, which could avert the flashpoint of a vote.


Allegra Stratton, political correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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