The coalition’s tuition fees plan remains in chaos

70 per cent of universities now plan to charge £9,000 a year.

When the coalition's tuition fees legislation was passed by a majority of just 21 votes in December, Vince Cable reassured the public that universities would charge the maximum £9,000 a year in "exceptional circumstances" only. We now know that the reverse is the case: universities will charge less than £9,000 in exceptional circumstances only.

Of the 60 institutions that we've heard from, 42 intend to charge full whack, including Oxford (1) and the University of East London (117). The average fee now stands at £8,679.20, well above the £7,500 predicted by the government.

In part, as I've noted before, this is to offset the planned 80 per cent reduction to the university teaching budget. But it's also because no higher education institution wants to look like a cheap option. Instead, like Stella Artois, they want to be reassuringly expensive.

The vice-chancellor of Teeside University (which intends to charge £8,500), Prof Graham Henderson, admitted as much yesterday. "There has been a lot of feedback against fees," he said, "but our students have been checking we are not charging the bottom of the spectrum because they don't want it to be seen as second-rate."

Hull and Harper Adams are the latest to join the £9,000 club.

Those institutions that charge the full amount will be required to spend £900 of that income on access for poorer students. But the danger is that pupils from the poorest backgrounds, hard-wired to fear debt, will be deterred from applying at all. A survey last year by the National Union of Students (NUS) found that 70 per cent of current students would have avoided university if fees had been set at £7,000, with those from low-income households most put off.

Ministers are now running out of time to amend their reforms. Today is the deadline for those universities hoping to charge more than £6,000 to submit their plans to the Office for Fair Access.

The universities minister, David Willetts, is right to point out that fee waivers and bursaries will allow many students not to pay full whack. But it was still hopelessly naive of the goverment to model its plans on an average fee of £7,500.

Willetts has yet to explain how he'll afford to pay out as much as £1bn more in subsidised loans.

The danger, as Ed Miliband warned at a press conference this morning, is that the coalition will make even deeper cuts to the teaching budget or reduce the number of student places by 36,000. It is time for ministers to tell us their plan B.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn prompts Tory outrage as he blames Grenfell Tower fire on austerity

To Conservative cries of "shame on you!", the Labour leader warned that "we all pay a price in public safety" for spending cuts.

A fortnight after the Grenfell Tower fire erupted, the tragedy continues to cast a shadow over British politics. Rather than probing Theresa May on the DUP deal, Jeremy Corbyn asked a series of forensic questions on the incident, in which at least 79 people are confirmed to have died.

In the first PMQs of the new parliament, May revealed that the number of buildings that had failed fire safety tests had risen to 120 (a 100 per cent failure rate) and that the cladding used on Grenfell Tower was "non-compliant" with building regulations (Corbyn had asked whether it was "legal").

After several factual questions, the Labour leader rose to his political argument. To cries of "shame on you!" from Tory MPs, he warned that local authority cuts of 40 per cent meant "we all pay a price in public safety". Corbyn added: “What the tragedy of Grenfell Tower has exposed is the disastrous effects of austerity. The disregard for working-class communities, the terrible consequences of deregulation and cutting corners." Corbyn noted that 11,000 firefighters had been cut and that the public sector pay cap (which Labour has tabled a Queen's Speech amendment against) was hindering recruitment. "This disaster must be a wake-up call," he concluded.

But May, who fared better than many expected, had a ready retort. "The cladding of tower blocks did not start under this government, it did not start under the previous coalition governments, the cladding of tower blocks began under the Blair government," she said. “In 2005 it was a Labour government that introduced the regulatory reform fire safety order which changed the requirements to inspect a building on fire safety from the local fire authority to a 'responsible person'." In this regard, however, Corbyn's lack of frontbench experience is a virtue – no action by the last Labour government can be pinned on him. 

Whether or not the Conservatives accept the link between Grenfell and austerity, their reluctance to defend continued cuts shows an awareness of how politically vulnerable they have become (No10 has announced that the public sector pay cap is under review).

Though Tory MP Philip Davies accused May of having an "aversion" to policies "that might be popular with the public" (he demanded the abolition of the 0.7 per cent foreign aid target), there was little dissent from the backbenches – reflecting the new consensus that the Prime Minister is safe (in the absence of an attractive alternative).

And May, whose jokes sometimes fall painfully flat, was able to accuse Corbyn of saying "one thing to the many and another thing to the few" in reference to his alleged Trident comments to Glastonbury festival founder Michael Eavis. But the Labour leader, no longer looking fearfully over his shoulder, displayed his increased authority today. Though the Conservatives may jeer him, the lingering fear in Tory minds is that they and the country are on divergent paths. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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