It's been reported today that Lord Browne's forthcoming review of university finances is likely to favour higher tuition fees over Vince Cable's proposed graduate tax. The review, due to be published on 11 October, is unconvinced by Cable's plans, which break the link between student and university. The proposals are expected to allow vice-chancellors to raise their fees enough to allow a market between universities -- £6,000 or £7,000 a year.
For the Liberal Democrats, this is problematic. For many years, one of its flagship policies has been opposition to any form of tuition fees at all.
The coalition agreement makes a brief reference to this potential crisis:
If the response of the Government to Lord Browne's report is one that Liberal Democrats cannot accept, then arrangements will be made to enable Liberal Democrat MPs to abstain in any vote.
But will this be sufficient? As Greg Hurst points out in the Times (£), the NUS rather astutely persuaded all 57 Lib Dem MPs -- including Vince Cable and Nick Clegg -- to sign a pledge saying that they would vote against any rise in tuition fees.
Clegg can be seen above proudly holding his signed pledge. Here's what he said at the time:
Labour and the Conservatives have been trying to keep tuition fees out of this election campaign. Despite the huge financial strain fees already place on Britain's young people, it is clear both Labour and the Conservatives want to lift the cap on fees ...
The Liberal Democrats are different. Not only will we oppose any raising of the cap, we will scrap tuition fees for good, including for part-time students ... Students can make the difference in countless seats in this election. Use your vote to block those unfair tuition fees and get them scrapped once and for all.
If he sticks to abstention -- as laid out in the coalition agreement -- rather than actively opposing any fee hike, Clegg will be hoping that students don't take this advice too literally and punish the Lib Dems at the next election.