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William Cullerne Bown: The issue of student fees could be the Coalition's first real crisis

Picture 16 William Cullerne Bown is the founder and owner of Research Fortnight.

Now it's official. Thanks to Vince Cable's email to Lib Dem members last night we know that student fees is the first authentic crisis of the Coalition.

Cable wrote to all Lib Dem members yesterday evening. The reason was to explain his party leadership's decision to abandon a graduate tax, an open secret that was about to become undeniable with the publication of the Browne Review on Tuesday. But that's not where the news is. The news is the bit where Cable says:

“Next week, Lord Browne will publish his report, with recommendations for reform. The Government will respond shortly.”

The news is the revelation that there is - still - no agreement between the Coalition partners on fees.

If there was a deal, David Cameron would be doing what Tony Blair did with the Dearing Report, Browne’s predecessor. He would be announcing, at the moment when the review was published, that he was implementing its recommendations. The whole point of having independent reviews of a politically explosive subject like student fees is to build a consensus that allows the government of the day to push through reform without excessive damage. And the way you do that is to strike while the iron is hot.

The Browne Review was long ago scheduled to report in the wake of the general election precisely so that radical reform could be rapidly pushed through during a new government’s honeymoon. Cable and David Willetts have had six months to come to a deal over student fees. And it’s not as if the contents of the Browne Review are a closed book to them. Willetts in particular, advised by my former colleague Anna Fazackerly, knows where all the policy bodies are buried. But they still haven’t struck a deal.

Meanwhile, the Treasury has pencilled in cuts of £4 billion a year in university teaching budgets in England.  That gigantic hole is supposed to be filled by increased income from higher fees. But there’s no deal on fees. And the CSR is just 10 days away.

The problem, as I have been pointing out since the start of August, is the arithmetic in the House of Commons. If Clegg takes up his option to abstain, the Conservatives’ notional majority is a seemingly comfortable 24 over all the other parties. But if radical reform is proposed, many Lib Dem MPs will follow Menzies Campbell and rebel. And this is the first - and possibly only - chance Conservative malcontents will get to squeeze Cameron. The whips cannot guarantee Cameron a majority.

This is why Cable and Willetts have been working overtime to find a deal that Clegg can sign up to. But having solemnly pledged before the election to vote against any rise in fees, a U-turn now would irretrievably stain the Clegg brand. (If you doubt this, check out his “Broken Promises” campaign video).

The only way out for Clegg is probably for the National Union of Students to agree to release the 54 Lib Dem MPs who signed from their pledge to vote against the fees rise. But the objectives of the NUS are the direct opposite of those of the Treasury. And so we have a stand-off. But one in which the Coalition, by delaying its response to Browne, has blinked first.

The NUS is now inching towards the greatest victory in its history. And the Coalition is sliding towards a train wreck on 20th October in which the Government takes enough money out of higher education to bankrupt the universities without having a secure route through to increased student fees. If it lacks the clarity to coldly assess and accept what is politically feasible, it may find itself indulging in a weak-willed gamble with the future of England’s universities.


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