Students and academics have called on the Liberal Democrats not to abandon their opposition to increases in university tuition fees. The call comes amidst fears that the party will give up its position on the issue as a result of its government coalition with the Conservative Party.
The National Union of Students (NUS) wrote to the Liberal Democrats yesterday (12 May) to ask for “urgent” clarification over the issue. The University and College Union (UCU), which represents academic staff, said that voters expected Liberal Democrat ministers to stick to their principles.
The NUS point out that every Liberal Democrat MP has signed the “Vote for Students” pledge. In doing so, they all promised to “vote against any increase in fees in the next parliament and to pressure the government to introduce a fairer alternative”.
The coalition agreement, published by the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats yesterday, includes a promise to attempt to increase higher education opportunities for people from disadvantaged backgrounds, but no specific measures are included. There is no mention of increases in tuition fees.
During the campaign, the Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg, who is now Deputy Prime Minister, warned of the dangers of debt for young people. His party promised to oppose an increase in fees, with the target of reducing and eventually abolishing them.
When Clegg spoke to students in Cambridge recently, he argued that “Labour and the Conservatives have been trying to keep tuition fees out of this election campaign”. He urged students to vote Liberal Democrat to “block those unfair tuition fees and get them scrapped once and for all”.
The senior Liberal Democrat, Vince Cable, has now been appointed Business Secretary, in which position he looks set to share responsibility for policy on universities.
"The faith students and their families have placed in the Liberal Democrats must now be repaid,” wrote the NUS' Aaron Porter in his letter to the party, “You campaigned with a clear and welcome manifesto pledge to support students and reduce their burden of debt”.
Porter pointed out that the new Foreign Secretary, William Hague, had suggested that Liberal Democrat MPs could abstain on a vote on tuition fees. The NUS argues that this would not go far enough.
Porter wrote, “Given the individual compact they made with their electorate through the Vote for Students pledge, it is incumbent on them to oppose any attempt to raise the cap on fees and to press the government for a fairer alternative”.
Meanwhile, the UCU's Sally Hunt urged the Liberal Democrats to use their new-found influence to prevent any increase in fees.
“UCU looks forward to confirmation that they have persuaded their new political partners to abolish fees over an agreed timescale,” said Hunt, “This move would expand access and opportunity at a time when our country needs more people participating in education. The thousands of students and their hard-working parents persuaded to vote Liberal Democrat to get rid of fees would expect nothing less.”
Hunt also called on the new government not to reduce higher education funding.
“The inconclusive election did not provide a mandate for punitive cuts in our vital public services,” she said.
She added, "The new Government has a unique opportunity to build a national consensus that puts education at the heart of our recovery. Education has the power to change people’s lives and slashing funding at a time when more people than ever need access to education is just wrong”.