The Liberal Democrats are set to confirm that they would scrap student tuition fees if they win the general election.
An announcement that the abolition of fees will be included in the Lib Dem manifesto is understood to be imminent.
The statement will set out the timescale for abolishing the charges, explain how the move will be paid for and detail what the party will do to assist part-time students financially.
Its policy committee supported the abolition of tuition fees at its 2009 spring conference in Harrogate, but at the summer conference in Bournemouth, Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg said that while he was committed to the policy, it would have to remain as an “aspiration” until the state of public finances improved.
“The only question is when we can afford to scrap them,” he said, pointing out that abolition would cost £12.5 billion.
Mr Clegg indicated he would prefer to spend the cash on a “pupil premium”, which would provide extra financial support for school pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds at the expense of the abolition of tuition fees.
His announcement provoked anger from some MPs, who argued that the policy had won the party votes in previous elections.
Charles Kennedy, the former Lib Dem leader, later said that abolition should be retained on principle and because it was important to voters.
In October, Barry Sheerman, Labour MP for Huddersfield, said in a House of Commons debate that he was confused about whether the Lib Dems were still opposed to variable tuition fees.
Stephen Williams, Liberal Democrat Shadow Universities Secretary, replied: “I will certainly reaffirm my party’s commitment to abolish the current fees model for funding higher education because it is broken. There is certainly no scope for fee increases.”
The announcement should mean that tuition fees become a subject of debate before the election despite Labour and the Conservatives’ stance that they will not discuss the issue until a review of student finance and higher education funding chaired by Lord Browne of Madingley reports in autumn 2010.
In November, while signing a National Union of Students pledge to vote against any increase in tuition fees, Sandra Gidley, Lib Dem MP for Romsey, said: “This review is nothing but a conspiracy between Labour and the Tories designed to keep plans to hike tuition fees off the agenda until after the general election.
“Lord Mandelson has shown he will do whatever it takes to shut out any debate on the future of tuition fees, either in Parliament or the country. The Liberal Democrats want to scrap tuition fees and will fight any attempt to raise the cap.”
A senior university figure was quoted in The Times on 8 December saying: “It has been made very clear to us, by both ministers and the Conservatives, that they want us to delay publishing our views to stop the Liberal Democrats making this an issue in advance of the general election.”
Mr Clegg said today, in an email bulletin: “This week the Party's federal policy committee agreed a way to deliver one of our most important policies, the scrapping of unfair tuition fees. We've developed a plan to phase out tuition fees over the course of the next six years, to ensure this vital policy is affordable even at this time of economic crisis.” Final year tuition fees will be the first to go, he added. “In 2011, we'll get help to part-time students, regulating the fees they pay (a vital step towards abolishing them). In 2012, part-time students will be able to access the same loans as full-time students. In 2013, we'll extend free tuition to second year students. In 2014, we'll extend that same free tuition to part time students. And in 2015, as the public finances are recovering, we will be able to afford to abolish all remaining fees.”