Liberal Democrat MPs will be allowed to abstain from any vote on tuition fees under the terms of the agreement struck by the new coalition government.
Student and academic groups have reacted with anger to the news, which could in effect see control of the policy handed to the Conservatives.
Details of the agreement between the two parties, published today, emphasise that the government will carefully consider the forthcoming conclusions of Lord Browne’s review into funding for the sector. But crucially it states that if the government’s response is one the Liberal Democrats “cannot accept”, then “arrangements will be made to enable Liberal Democrat MPs to abstain in any vote”.
This means that if Lord Browne recommends raising or even removing the cap on tuition fees – potentially allowing universities to charge students thousands of pounds more – Tories could agree to pass the plans without the Liberal Democrats voting them down.
Phasing out tuition fees has been a key plank of the Liberal Democrats’ higher education policy, and many people – particularly students – will see the agreement as a U-turn on their manifesto pledge.
Aaron Porter, president-elect of the National Union of Students, said: "Liberal Democrat candidates made an en masse cast-iron commitment by signing NUS' pledge to vote against any rise in tuition fees in the next parliament and to pressure the government to introduce a fairer alternative. They were elected to Parliament on that basis and are now duty-bound to honour their promises. It would be intolerable for those MPs to backtrack on their personal pledges to voters."
A spokesman for the University and College Union said: “The Lib Dems’ campaign included a clear message that they were anti-fees.
“Merely abstaining when there is a vote in the House on the issue will not be good enough for the thousands of people who put their faith in them.”
The news came as Vince Cable, a Liberal Democrat, was announced as the new business secretary. The post was previously occupied by Lord Mandelson, who had overall responsibility for higher education. However, it has not yet been made clear whether universities will remain within the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.
One alternative could be that higher education is moved back into the main education department, which is to be headed by the Conservatives’ Michael Gove.