Leaders of Lib Dems to ditch fees policy

The party is to look at more immediate ways to help students, reports Melanie Newman

September 18, 2008

The leaders of the Liberal Democrats plan to abandon the party's opposition to student tuition fees.

Stephen Williams, Lib Dem Shadow Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, said that the policy was not sustainable.

In an interview with Times Higher Education, as his party gathered for its annual conference in Bournemouth this week, Mr Williams said that Nick Clegg, the leader of the party, had come to this conclusion after "long internal discussions".

The party's higher education policy is still under review, and announcements have been delayed until the spring conference in March, which will focus on education. Mr Williams acknowledged that he and Mr Clegg were likely to face strong opposition from many in the party who felt that its stance at the 2005 election, as the only mainstream party supporting free higher education, was an important distinguishing factor.

A poll by Opinionpanel research, reported in Times Higher Education in June, found that the Liberal Democrats were the most popular party with students, and that the party has a strong record in constituencies with a high student population.

"At the last general election our stance on tuition fees was a distinctive thing about the Liberal Democrats, along with our opposition to the Iraq War and our position on council tax," said Mr Williams, MP for Bristol West.

But the policy was to offer support to full-time undergraduates, he said. "We weren't offering anything to part-timers or older adult learners in further education, or anything distinctive in terms of maintenance support."

Under current Government policy, the repayment of students' tuition fees is deferred until they start earning, and Mr Williams said that this meant that current students would not have noticed the effect of the Liberal Democrats' anti-fees policy until they began repaying their loans.

An offer to decrease future debt repayments was not a strong campaign message, he said.

"There are a lot of things we could do that would be immediately beneficial," Mr Williams said. Various options are still under discussion, including non-repayable grants, changes to the bursary system and increasing the size of student loans on offer.

A national bursary system of the type proposed by the Higher Education Policy Unit this week is understood to be a strong contender for inclusion in policy.

A key aim is to abolish the distinction between full- and part-time students in terms of access to loans and payment for courses.

"The other area we didn't address in 2005 is the debt burden facing young graduates - we are looking at what we can do to ease that," Mr Williams said.

The party would fund this from a £20 billion pot of funds reallocated from Labour projects such as the identity card scheme.

"We will not be going into a general election suggesting any overall rise in taxation," Mr Williams said.

The party will spend the next few months "fine-tuning" policy and garnering support, to improve the reforms' chances of being passed at the spring conference. The March conference will have education as its theme, with childcare, schools and further and higher education up for debate, underscoring Mr Williams' view that these should not be considered in isolation.

David Howarth, Lib Dem MP for Cambridge, predicted that the leadership would meet stiff opposition if it decided to abandon opposition to tuition fees. "I am happy to look at the issue again but the issue of free education is such an important one for the party that I cannot see the party conference accepting any move away from it. It would be wrong to do so," he said.


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