Delegates stand firm in tuition fee debate

September 24, 1999

Alan Thomson reports from the Liberal Democrat conference in Harrogate

Liberal Democrat delegates have foiled leadership attempts to resolve the party's problematic single issue fight against tuition fees. Delegates at the Harrogate conference voted against a leadership amendment to shelve a controversial motion calling for the scrapping of fees and reinstatement of housing benefit and access to income support for undergraduates.

Further and higher education spokesman Phil Willis asked delegates to refer the motion back. This would have allowed time to set up a working group and subsequent policy document to "broaden" the debate on student support, encompassing tuition fees. However, delegates voted overwhelmingly for the motion as it stood.

Before Tuesday's vote Mr Willis said: "The single issue fight against tuition fees must be broadened into a debate about the whole issue of funding student support. There is a need for joined-up thinking. We are not sidestepping the fees issue. We are looking at tuition fees within a broader package of student support."

Mr Willis is keen to broaden the debate to avoid an embarrassing debacle over fees in Scotland where the national party and the Scottish Liberal Democrats remain opposed to fees.

The party in Scotland ran into trouble when, after telling voters in May's elections to the Scottish Parliament that it would vote immediately to abolish fees, it failed to do so.

Instead the Liberal Democrat members of the Scottish Parliament entered into a coalition with Labour Party MSPs, giving the two parties a commanding majority.

In return Labour granted the Liberal Democrats significant education concessions and ordered a review of student finance, headed by Andrew Cubie.

The fees issue is crucial for both parties. The government's fees policy would be hit if fees had been or are abolished north of the border.

It would create an anomaly whereby Scottish students would pay no tuition fees whether studying at Scottish, Welsh or English universities. Welsh and English students, still subject to national policy on fees, would pay fees.

It is potentially damaging for the Liberal Democrats because, despite the Scottish Liberal Democrats' continued determination to abolish fees, they have entered a coalition in Scotland which has won them real power and which they would be loathe to lose.

And if the Cubie report concludes that fees are necessary for university funding, then the Scottish Liberal Democrats would have to think twice as hard. They might have to choose between sticking to principle - which could be undermined by Cubie - and retaining that hard-won parliamentary power.

Choosing the latter would mean keeping fees in Scotland, potentially leaving the Scottish Liberal Democrats at odds with the national party. This is what Mr Willis was trying to avoid with his attempt to refer back the motion.

He said: "The whole devolution agenda will allow us to find different solutions to the whole issue of how we support our students. There are potentially different solutions because there is no point in having devolved government if we cannot have different solutions."

Mr Willis withdrew an amendment to Tuesday's motion in favour of the call to refer back. The amendment sought conference support for income-

contingent loans for all further and higher education students over 18.

But after Tuesday's vote, Liberal Democrat policy could end up being that all full and part-time students up to and including first-degree students should have their tuition paid by the state. And that access to benefits for all students over 16 should be restored.

Cubie evidence, page 6

Trends, page VIII

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