A Labour MP has gone on the record claiming that the Government is conspiring with the Conservative Party to ensure that the issue of undergraduate tuition fees remains off the political agenda in the run-up to the next general election.
Ian Gibson, MP for Norwich North and a veteran anti-fees campaigner, said that “nods and winks” between the two parties have prevented fees from becoming an election issue.
The result was that the electorate and the university sector were being denied an “important choice”, as was the case in 1997 when Lord Dearing’s review of higher education heralded the introduction of tuition fees, he said.
“It is a key issue and I think it should be an election issue. I’m not sure they have actually met in a lay-by off the M25 to discuss it, but I think there is an understanding that neither party has the bottle to… have it discussed so near an election.”
His claims follow comments made last month by Adrian Smith, the Government’s Director-General for Science and Research, who said that the fees debate had been “kicked into touch” because “neither party wanted to touch it”.
Predicting that the Conservatives would raise fees if they were elected, Dr Gibson added that Labour was also “susceptible to pressure” from the vice-chancellors of elite institutions, who have made it clear that they want the current fees cap to be raised, despite opposition within the party.
John Denham, the Universities Secretary, has said that the Government will not make a decision on fees until the review on the subject takes place. This is due to start this year, but he has not said when it will conclude.
Despite claims that the two main parties are in cahoots, David Willetts, the Conservative Shadow Universities Secretary, has accused the Government of kicking the review into the long grass.
Speaking last week, he said: “The student finance review should start now and be as comprehensive as possible. We are keen and willing to work with the Government on a bipartisan basis, but we cannot wait forever.”
Stephen Williams, the Liberal Democrats’ Universities Spokesman, said that if Labour and the Conservatives conspired “yet again” to deny the higher education sector and the wider electorate a choice on the issue, it would be a “spineless act of political cowardice”.
“Whether or not you agree with the Lib Dem policy of maintaining university funding through general taxation and… reducing student debt, at least students and staff know what we stand for, that our proposals are costed and credible,” he said.
“If the review is parked until after the election, then students will rightly assume that the other parties have something nasty in store for them.”
Dr Gibson said his own view was that education “should be free”.
He said there were “alternative models” of university funding that did not involve top-up fees, such as greater industry involvement or graduate taxes.
He has tabled an early day motion calling on the Government to publish full details of the alternatives to fees to facilitate a proper debate.