The Liberal Democrats could be set for another painful internal battle over tuition fees at their forthcoming annual conference, with one prominent backbencher indicating that he would vote against the party’s plans to endorse £9,000 fees.
The Lib Dems, who officially remain committed to phasing out such charges, were set to ask delegates to adopt £9,000 fees as party policy. The proposal, which opponents are attempting to derail, is likely to be the biggest higher education flashpoint of the forthcoming party conference season. The outcome could be significant if the Lib Dems end up in coalition again after 2015.
A wide-ranging Lib Dem policy motion on post-16 education, to be debated on 15 September at the conference in Glasgow, asks delegates to commit the party to “retaining the current system of higher education finance, and committing to a review within the next Parliament”.
But an amendment asking for the policy to return to scrapping fees when public finances allow may be accepted for debate.
The original motion is the fruit of a policy paper written by a working group on education led by Lib Dem peer Sal Brinton, former bursar at two University of Cambridge colleges. However, Julian Huppert, the MP for Cambridge who was among the Lib Dems to vote against higher fees in 2010, disagreed with the motion when asked by Times Higher Education how he would respond.
“I believe fees are wrong in principle,” Mr Huppert says in a statement. He adds: “In the longer term, I want to see university fees phased out altogether.”
A different amendment by Lib Dem member Callum Leslie proposing that the party recommit to phasing out fees has been rejected. However, Mr Leslie said he would press for a separate vote on deleting the words “retaining the current system of higher education finance” from the motion. Plans to sell off the loan book “show that this system does not save anywhere near the money we were told”, he argued.
Among left-leaning Lib Dem groups, Linda Jack, chair of Liberal Left and an opponent of fees, said she expected the endorsement of £9,000 fees to go through.
“A lot of people who were angry have left the party because [the 2010 fees vote] was their tipping point,” she added.
Prateek Buch, director of the Social Liberal Forum, said his personal view was that “the current system appears to be the least worst of realistically available alternatives”.
He said amendments tabled by forum members would seek to commit the party to ruling out changes for existing borrowers “as and when the student loan book is privatised” and ensure that “fees are not raised above their current level”.
The Lib Dem motion also seeks to commit the party to creating a single higher education regulator and introducing a system to offer postgraduate loans of up to £10,000 a year.