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A new deal on higher education funding will probably see compromises from Conservatives and, particularly, Liberal Democrats

By Tim Montgomerie

CableVince470 Last night Vince Cable sent out a letter to Liberal Democrat and, apparently, Tory members explaining why he no longer supports a graduate tax. He identified three reasons (that were all obvious when he first mooted the idea in July):

  • "First, since a graduate tax is open-ended, some graduates would unfairly find themselves paying many times the cost of their course. This is not fair.
  • Second, foreign students could end up paying less than some UK graduates, because taxes cannot be collected from people living in other countries. This is not fair either.
  • Third, a graduate tax would do nothing to reduce the deficit over the next five years. Indeed, it would add many billions to public spending, meaning that further cuts would be needed in other areas of government spending."

Coming on top of his rather hysterical attacks on wealth creators and his U-turn on early spending cuts, this latest posturing-followed-by-retreat will reinforce Vince Cable's reputation for flip-floppery.

Within the Coalition Agreement (page 31) there is provision for the Liberal Democrats to abstain on any increase in the student contribution if they so choose:

"If the response of the Government to Lord Browne’s report is one that Liberal Democrats cannot accept, then arrangements will be made to enable Liberal Democrat MPs to abstain in any vote."

The Sunday Times (£) suggests tuition fees may rise to an average of £7,000 from £3,290 if the Coalition accepts the forthcoming recommendation, from Lord Browne, to abolish Tony Blair's cap on tuition fees*. At the General Election the Liberal Democrats made a commitment that they'd never vote for higher tuition fees. This new video mocks that commitment.

Students and other voters won't readily forgive Liberal Democrat MPs sitting on their hands if they are not seen to get something for their acquiescence in allowing Tory MPs to do the dirty work of voting for tuition fees.  What seems likely is that higher-earning graduates will be charged a higher interest rate on their tuition fee borrowings and some of this money will be diverted to fund bursaries or other means of ensuring poorer students get full access to universities. Nick Clegg will hope this concession will allow voters to forgive his party's permissive stance.

* Douglas Carswell MP makes the case against any cap on tuition fees.

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