E Cable, the business secretary, yesterday completed a remarkable volte-face on university tuition fees and threw his weight behind Lord Browne’s report, which has recommended a massive rise in student contributions.
Cable also dropped his long-time support for a graduate tax, insisting that it was simply “not feasible” given the parlous state of the country’s public finances.
In the run up to the general election, the Liberal Democrats made much of the fact they were the only major political party to oppose any rise in tuition fees. “We will resist, vote against, campaign against, a rise in tuition fees,” Lib?Dem leader Nick Clegg said at the time.
But yesterday Cable insisted the Browne report was “on the right lines”. Browne, a former chief executive of BP, has recommended that the £3,290 cap on tuition fees should be lifted, effectively allowing universities to charge as much as they like.
However a tapered levy on universities that charge more than £6,000 is expected to stop fees spiralling out of control. If a university charges £12,000 instead of £11,000, it would only keep £250 of the extra revenue, whereas moving from £6,000 to £7,000 would net the institution an extra £600.
Proceeds for the levy are expected to help the government underwrite the cost of much higher student loans.
But there is likely to be dissent within the Lib Dem ranks. Deputy leader Simon Hughes, a standard bearer for disaffected MPs, yesterday said the report would “not be the last word on policy for funding higher education”.
“All the Liberal Democrat MPs are very conscious of the positions we have taken on higher education and the policies we campaigned for at the last election,” he said in a thinly-veiled warning to the party’s leaders.