It was always going to be one of the key early tests of the coalition. And as news emerges that business secretary Vince Cable has abandoned a move towards a graduate tax, the pressure on the Lib Dems (who have previously opposed any attempt to raise tuition fees) is growing. Reports today reveal that Cable has written a note to coalition colleagues explaining the graduate tax decision, and the assumption is that tuition fees will inevitably have to rise. Lord Browne's review on the subject, which is due to be published on Tuesday, is expected to recommend more than doubling fees to about £7,000 a year.
In his note, Cable said that while a graduate tax was "superficially attractive, an additional tax on graduates fails both the tests of fairness and deficit reduction". He also said:
I am entirely committed to a progressive system of graduate contributions, the details of which we will be able to confirm shortly.
If the assumption is correct, that the alternative is a fee hike, then the notion that this will be a "progressive system" seems risible, even if students who earn more money on graduation will have to repay loans at a higher interest rate. Fees of the levels suggested would surely put off many of those from families on lower incomes.
Speaking on the Andrew Marr Show this morning, Andy Burnham (the new shadow education secretary) pointed out the hypocrisy of Lib Dems -- including Cable and the party's leader, Nick Clegg -- who had signed pledges against an increase in fees. It will be be a deeply uncomfortable week for the Lib Dems if they have to go back on one of their central election promises, and will surely give further cause to grassroots members' sense of betrayal. As Burnham said, referring also to the child benefit announcement of last week, it seems that "everything the coalition said before the election, they can tear up now".