The government has announced that MPs will vote on Thursday 9th December on plans to raise tuition fees in England to £9000. The vote will prove a vital moment for the Coalition government, whose fledgling ties have already been severely tested by the issue of university tuition. Following the Browne review of higher education, the government proposed a plan which would see state funding for education massively cut, with huge rises in tuition fees paving the way for students to foot the bill for their education instead.

Liberal Democrat Difficulties

This has proved a particularly sticky political situation for the Liberal Democrats, who signed pledges during the election campaign to oppose any rise in tuition fees as they wooed the student vote. Since the announcement of the new plans, students have taken to the streets in their tens of thousands to protest against the introduction of a new tuition fee system that they say will devastate access to education in this country for those from disadvantaged backgrounds as well as saddling generations of future students with untenable debt. The rage of marchers and of protesters carrying out occupations at universities across the country has focussed on the Liberal Democrats and their leader Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister.

Clegg U-Turn

After vociferously campaigning on the subject of tuition fees, calling the debt already imposed on students by the current system a travesty, and promising to oppose any rise in tuition fees at every turn in Parliament, Clegg now claims that the economic situation has made his former plans untenable, and that the coalition proposals are the fairest alternative.

Tuition fee impact on students

Clegg claims that 25% of the poorest students will actually be better off under the new tuition fee scheme, which would see students pay nothing up front, and loan repayments begin at a higher earning threshold. But respected think tank Million+ has published research indicating that the majority of students would in fact be saddled with tens of thousands of extra debt, with the brunt of the burden falling on middle-income families and earners from the middle classes.

Access to University

Clegg has promised extra incentives, scholarships and access schemes to prevent the rise in university fees from discouraging disadvantaged students from applying. The government announced this week that this would include a fund allowing students who had been eligible for the free school meals plan to have one or two years of their university tuition paid for by the system. Their proposal was somewhat dampened however, by their admission that the money for this scheme would come from the same pot already set aside by the government for university access and scholarship schemes, thus admitting that it does not in fact represent a new scheme or any ‘extra’ allowance for poorer students.

Tuition fee protests

Protesters, coordinated by the National Union of Students and led by Aaron Porter, have taken to the streets in their masses, with three huge demonstrations and marches through central London bringing Whitehall to a standstill and creating an enormous public show of indignation. Meanwhile in tribute to the peaceful civil disobedience of student protesters in the late sixties, students at several universities including UCL and Cambridge have staged peaceful occupations of university buildings to raise awareness of the cause and to persuade their institutions to act against the government’s plans. They have been supported by long lists of respected academics, politicians, philosophers and artists from across the world, including Billy Bragg and respected philosopher Noam Chomsky.

Liberal Democrats divided

Meanwhile, Clegg’s actions have raised serious concerns and the threat of a split within his own party. A group of 100 important Liberal Democrat members signed a petition begging him to remember their “party values” and claiming that he has abandoned “party policy” as it had been decided at the party conferences. Within the higher ranks too there have been grave concerns, with members as important and high-profile as Vince Cable expressing their reluctance to vote for the proposals, and transport minister Norman Baker threatening to quit his post in order to vote against the rise in tuition fees.

Party conference cancelled

The strength of feeling surrounding the debate is clear, with the Liberal Democrats unable to hold a party conference this week to strengthen and unify their position due to the risk of becoming surrounded by thousands of protesters. Two independent venues have cancelled their bookings, leaving them in the embarrassing situation of being unable to hold their conference at all until the New Year, a show of strength claimed as a victory by the protesters.

Labour opposition

Those opposing the plan, including the Labour party and its leader Ed Miliband, claim that it is utterly unfair, brutally shoving an unbearable level of debt onto graduate backs and that it will have a devastating impact on the numbers of students from disadvantaged backgrounds applying to university at all. However the impact of their opposition in Parliament has been dampened by the Labour party’s failure to present a viable or universally supported alternative for tuition fees, with high-ranking party members such as Shadow Chancellor Alan Johnson casting doubt on the feasibility of Miliband’s preferred graduate tax system.

MPs to vote on tuition fees

Thursday’s vote on university tuition fees remains the cause of much controversy and anticipation, with speculation rife that Liberal Democrat MPs are under simultaneous pressure from their leader to vote for the motion, and from protesters to honour their pledges and take advantage of the provision in the coalition deal allowing them to abstain. With such strength of feeling riding on the vote, there are any number of possible outcomes, with the very real possibility of a three-way split between those voting for and against and those choosing to abstain.