The Liberal Democrats have reached a “credible position” by accepting £9,000 tuition charges in the short term and treating the abolition of fees as a future aspiration, according to the party’s deputy leader, Simon Hughes.
The Lib Dems, who again could be power brokers in any future coalition, reached a compromise over their official policy on higher education funding at the party’s autumn conference in Glasgow on 15 September.
Senior Lib Dem figures had originally proposed a motion that backed £9,000 fees and committed the party to “retaining the current system of higher education finance”.
But that was thrown out by delegates, who supported an amended motion.
The changed wording accepts that the £9,000 regime is “preferable” to Labour’s policy, adding that the Lib Dems will review the system after the 2015 general election and then scrap fees “if possible or necessary”.
Vince Cable, the business secretary, ended up backing the amended motion while disagreeing with the goal of abolishing fees.
“We and the other major parties are not going to go back to free tuition,” he told delegates. “Even if a party promised it, I don’t think the public would believe it.”
The Lib Dem leadership wanted to update the party’s official policy, which until now stated that it would phase out tuition charges – problematic given that many of the party’s MPs broke their pledge to oppose fee rises in 2010.
Mr Hughes, who took on the role of “access champion” in 2011, told Times Higher Education after the debate: “The party still has a strong anti-fees view.
“We are trying to be realistic: fees have been implemented. We’re saying that rather than try and go back to where we were [abolishing fees] immediately, let’s pause, reflect, take evidence, see the effect and then come back to it again in the round after the election. I think that’s a more credible position.”
Mr Hughes said that on access, it was “not the fees…but the funding for living costs that is the real issue”.
As a result of the vote, the Lib Dems are likely to have a short-term higher education funding policy close to that of the Conservatives at the next election.
Labour, which in 2011 unveiled a holding policy promising to lower fees to £6,000, must now weigh up whether maintaining a different stance will attract enough votes to balance the higher costs of implementing such a system.
Julian Huppert, the Lib Dem MP for Cambridge, who voted against £9,000 fees in 2010, told the conference that he wanted “an option to eliminate fees” kept for consideration by the party in the longer term.
But he added: “I really don’t think the public would believe us if we said it at the next election.”
The original motion proposing support for the £9,000 system was the fruit of a Lib Dem working group on post-16 education policy.
Baroness Brinton, who chaired the working group, criticised the party’s former policy to abolish fees. “We had no method for paying for it,” she told a Million+/National Union of Students fringe event at the conference on 15 September.
She added: “The group’s position was: we quite like the current system provided we get more support for students from lower-income backgrounds.”