Students and academics have condemned a proposal to remove the cap on university tuition fees in England. They have urged Liberal Democrat MPs to stick to a pledge they each signed during the general election campaign, in which they promised to vote against any increase in fees.
The proposal for unlimited fees is contained in the Browne Review into higher education funding, which formally reported this morning (12 October). The University and College Union (UCU), which represents teaching staff, described the suggestion as “the final nail in the coffin of affordable higher education”.
The coalition government plans to support the “broad thrust” of the review's recommendations, although the coalition agreement allows Liberal Democrat MPs to abstain on the issue. The Business Secretary Vince Cable, a Liberal Democrat, this morning described Browne's suggestions as “persuasive” but said that the government remains “open to suggestions”.
But with Labour and other parties determined to vote against, a significant rebellion by Liberal Democrat backbenchers could see the government defeated.
The Liberal Democrat Deputy Leader, Simon Hughes, who is not a minister, has already challenged Cable to explain why he considers the proposals to be “fair and progressive”. Liberal Democrat MPs predicted to vote against the measure include former party leader Menzies Campbell as well as Julian Huppert, who represents many student voters in his Cambridge constituency.
The UCU predicted that Browne's recommendations would have a “devastating effect”, with some universities forced to close and the curriculum dangerously narrowed. They said that, if the proposals are enacted, England will have “the most expensive public degrees in the world”.
“This is a savage attack on what a university is and what it can offer to all students - not just those with deep pockets - as it effectively privatises the cost of higher education,” said Sally Hunt, General Secretary of the UCU.
Aaron Porter, President of the National Union of Students (NUS), said that Browne's proposals would “hand universities a blank cheque and force the next generation to pick up the tab for devastating cuts to higher education”.
He added, "A market in course prices between universities would increase pressure on students to make decisions based on cost rather than academic ability or ambition. Those already feeling the pinch will clearly be unwilling to take such a gamble and face being priced out of the universities that would opt to charge sky-high fees”.
Porter reminded Liberal Democrat MPs of the pledge they made to oppose any increase in fees.
“If all it takes is five months in government for the Liberal Democrat leadership to be so at odds with the public, this doesn’t bode well for the future,” said Hunt, “Families who aspire for their children to go to university are not interested in flip-flopping, u-turns, coalition infighting or whether the latest idea is called a tax, loan or fee, they know full well it means debt”.
She insisted, “They will rightly feel betrayed if the Liberal Democrats acquiesce in increasing the cost of university.”
The UCU reiterated their call for big businesses to be taxed for the substantial benefits they gain from a plentiful supply of graduates. They propose a modest Business Education Tax for the top four per cent of companies – those who make profits of over £1.5 million a year.
UCU insist that increasing Business Education Tax to the G7 average of 32.87 per cent and hypothecating the extra revenue to higher education, would generate enough annually to abolish tuition fees altogether.