On Saturday morning Liberal Democrats from the south of England overwhelmingly voted in favour of a motion to vote against any planned increase in tuition fees that the government may propose this week.
Saturday’s meeting was the autumn conference of the South Central region which includes representatives from Oxford and other towns with a substantial student population such as Reading.
Secretary of State for the Environment and Climate Change Chris Huhne briefly attended the conference but did not pledge his opposition to fee hikes as firmly as other members present.
As one of the most senior members of the Liberal Democrats in the coalition government, party members will be looking to Huhne to represent their views at the highest level.
But when asked if he would personally support raising the cap on tuitions fees to a higher level, Huhne refused to rule out the idea, saying, “I personally want to see the whole package.”
The former candidate for the party leadership likened the issue to the design of a tax system, where focusing on one element at the expense of others could lead to “all sorts of unintended consequences.”
In a half-hour long speech to the conference Huhne emphasised the need for compromise in coalition government and the poor state of government finances, which necessitated “tough decisions”. In contrast, Dr Evan Harris, former MP for West Oxford, opened the conference by calling for party members not to accept policy that had not been included in the coalition agreement: “Every time we cause trouble it helps Nick,” he said.
Local members of the party were uniformly against allowing tuition fees to rise.
Speakers referenced the pledge made during the formation of the coalition government in which all sitting Lib Dem MPs agreed that they would not allow an increase in tuition fees during this parliament.
The pledge included a commitment to finding a fairer and progressive alternative to the current system. Steve Guy proposed the motion and described it as “about the integrity of the party.”
Beth Rowland, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson for education, agreed: “If we don’t honour the pledges that we make, how can we expect the electorate to trust us again, ever, on anything?”
Opposition to fees increases was also ideological. Guy said that a belief in free education is “why we’re Liberal Democrats.” David Rendel, who contested the Newbury seat in May, said that the suggestions made by the Browne review were “neither fair nor progressive” as the pledge required.
The motion to oppose an increase in fees passed with only three votes against it in a conference of around 100 people.
Huhne did not reveal details of the government’s proposal, due to be released this week, but said “We’re going to see a substantial change in the ideas Lord Browne put forward.’
In line with speculation last week and hints from Nick Clegg and Vince Cable, Huhne said: “We’ve already had a very clear indication from the team at the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills that, for example, they want to see a cap on tuition fees.” He described the Browne Review as “one element” of the decision-making process on fees “but not the last word”.
Huhne outlined what he hoped the proposal would include: “I want to see as little emphasis on tuition fees and as much emphasis on graduate contributions as I can.” Other party members also support the provision for a graded scale of repayment that would mean students who graduate to better-paid jobs would pay more for their education. Tim Farron, MP for Westmorland and Lonsdale, said: “If there is to be a charge then this would be a step in the right direction.”
When asked about the possible negative effects of a graded system, such as reducing the incentives for individuals to earn more and encouraging emigration to escape repayment, Huhne replied: “Nobody’s advocating confiscatory taxation.”
Farron is highly critical of the role that university vice-chancellors have played in pushing for higher fees due to what he described as their “disregard for the welfare and indebtedness of their students.” But he admitted that government cuts left no obvious alternative. When discussing the rumours that top universities including Oxford are threatening to privatize, he said: “Vince is tempted to say stuff you and call their bluff.”