Lib Dems' fees stance in limbo

'No decision' to mothball abolition plans despite leader's comments. Melanie Newman reports

September 24, 2009

Calls for clarity followed the announcement by Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrats, at his party conference that opposition to tuition fees would be mothballed for the foreseeable future.

However, the party's Higher Education Spokesman, Stephen Williams, later insisted that no decision had been taken on the matter.

During a session at the conference in Bournemouth this week, Mr Clegg was asked why he supported the "pupil premium", which would provide extra financial support for school pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds at the expense of the abolition of tuition fees.

He insisted that there was "no question mark" over his commitment to scrapping fees, but added: "The only question is when we can afford to scrap them." Abolition would cost £12.5 billion, he said.

Mr Clegg said he was prioritising the pupil premium because "it's really important that ... we do everything we can to give extra support to children from the most difficult backgrounds so they have the chance to go to university".

Mr Williams told Times Higher Education that a final decision on fees would be made by the Lib Dems' policy committee and parliamentary party next year.

The policy committee supported the abolition of tuition fees at the party's spring conference in Harrogate earlier this year.

"There will be an awful lot of negotiation between now and the new year," Mr Williams said.

He later told a fringe meeting at the conference: "I will argue that we must remain the distinctive party for students and their parents ... I would find it difficult to stand for a party that made access to higher education more difficult."

He also said he believed that the fees model should be abolished.

After Mr Clegg's announcement, Charles Kennedy, the party's former leader, said that the abolition policy should be retained on principle and because it was important to voters.

At a fringe event sponsored by the Million+ group of new universities, Phil Willis, chairman of the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee, said the lack of clarity on the issue was "like a pantomime ... do we or do we not support the pledge to end fees?"

Noting that Mr Clegg had suggested that the policy should remain an aspiration to be revisited once the economy had recovered, Mr Willis said: "I have an ambition to be a Formula One driver ... I can't see Ferrari offering me a seat next year."

Aaron Porter, National Union of Students vice-president (higher education), called for transparency from the main political parties on fees.

"Come out and say what you believe - give us the debate we deserve," he said.

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