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Liberal Democrats may have to swallow higher tuition fees but only Tory MPs will have to vote for them

If Capital Gains Tax has been the earliest big test of the Right's loyalty to the Coalition, higher tuition fees might be the biggest pill (so far) that the left of the Liberal Democrats may be forced to swallow.

4624547316_9fb7da38c0 Universities Minister David Willetts has not pre-judged the Review of Higher Education Funding - led by Lord Browne and due to report in the autumn - but he has said (a) that the government needs to find £700m of savings from the higher education budget and (b) that degree courses are a "burden on the taxpayer that had to be tackled". See full Guardian interview.

Reacting to the debate, the new LibDem deputy leader Simon Hughes issued the following statement:

"We need to make sure there's value for money but it would be wrong to put more financial burden on students by way of tuition fees. I honestly don't see the party voting to raise tuition fees and we're a democratic party, that's where our policy is formulated."

The Liberal Democrats opposed increasing tuition fees in their election manifesto but agreed - as part of the Coalition deal - to abstain if they were pushed higher. Simon Hughes does not undo that agreement. As long as Tories vote for higher fees any increase will pass. That's not a great deal for Tory MPs. They become the targets of student voters but LibDems still benefit from another budget-busting measure while keeping their principles half-intact.

When standing for the Tory leadership in 2005 Mr Cameron recommended greater use of "co-payments" for public services. His examples were tuition fees and motorway tolls.

An alternative to higher tuition fees might be the end of zero interest rates on student loans and - my preferred route - a significant reduction in the number of people going to university.

Last month Vince Cable - senior to Mr Willetts at the Department for Business and Skills - wrote to Vice Chancellors urging pay and expenses restraint.

Tim Montgomerie


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