Top-up fees stalked the fringes at the Lib Dems' conference, says Claire Sanders
Liberal Democrats were quick to claim this week that their new tax policies would not jeopardise their opposition to top-up fees.
In a crucial debate at their annual conference in Brighton, Liberal Democrats voted to drop their commitment to a 50p tax rate for high earners. The shift raised questions about whether the party could find the £1.2 billion needed to abolish tuition fees.
Evan Harris, the Liberal Democrat Spokesman on Science who led the fight to keep the 50p rate, insisted that the opposition to tuition fees would remain.
"We will still go into the next election with the best policy on higher education. We will look at our spending commitments and find the money to abolish tuition fees," he said. He suggested that money saved by abandoning identity cards, for example, could be diverted to higher education.
"As Science Spokesman, I am very concerned at the level of debt among graduates," he said. "This can be a deterrent for those wishing to pursue scientific careers."
Vince Cable, the party's Treasury Spokesman, announced that he had asked his deputy, Julia Goldsworthy, to identify cuts of £15 billion a year to fund commitments on free personal care, tuition fees and higher pensions. He told the conference: "The issue here is simply put but not easy to deliver: identifying those areas of public spending that must be cut to accommodate our priorities."
Questions remain about the party's long-term commitment to abolish tuition fees, especially if it involves painful cuts elsewhere.
Julian Astle, director of the Liberal Democrat think-tank CentreForum, stimulated debate earlier this year with the publication of a pamphlet arguing that tuition fees should be raised rather than abolished. He said that money would be better spent on under-fives.
Both Mr Astle and Dr Cable have also raised the possibility of introducing student vouchers as a way of funding higher education.
At a National Union of Students fringe event, Stephen Williams, the party's Spokesman on Higher Education, said the Liberal Democrats planned to review their education policies next year.
Insisting that the opposition to top-up fees would remain, he added: "It will be a wide-ranging review. One area we may look at is the cost of providing subsidised loans to all students."
Liberal Democrat MPs and students at the event, which was run with Campaigning for Mainstream Universities, expressed strong support for the current policy - making it clear that any shift before the next election would be difficult for party leaders.
Mark Gettleson, a former student at Cambridge University and new chair of the Liberal Democrat Youth and Students group, said: "We will never renege on our commitment to abolish top-up fees. Many Liberal Democrat MPs owe their seats to this policy."
Gemma Tumelty, president of the National Union of Students, said: "We have received assurances that the Liberal Democrats are firmly committed to the abolition of top-up fees. Vince Cable has personally told us that he is looking for savings to afford this commitment."