Nick Clegg speaks at the Liberal Democrat spring conference in York earlier this month. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Will the Lib Dems oppose a tuition fee rise in 2015?

With the Tories refusing to rule out another increase, Clegg's party will soon need to decide where it stands.

With the new tuition fees system threatening to become more expensive for the government than its predecessor (owing to a non-repayment rate of 45 per cent), the question of how to sustainably fund universities has risen again. There are three ways in which ministers could attempt to plug the blackhole (which stands at over £1.5bn a year): a reduction in the earnings threshold for graduate repayment (currently £21,000), an increase in state subsidy (funded by higher taxes or greater cuts elsewhere), or a rise in tuition fees (provided that this does not similarly result in a higher bill). 

When challenged to rule out the latter option in an interview with Channel 4 News on Saturday, universities minister David Willetts notably refused to do so, merely stating that "we will have to see how the income of universities performs. But we have a structure for £9,000 and £21,000 and that is working". Pressed again by presenter Cathy Newman as he was leaving the studio on whether another increase was on the way, he revealingly replied: "could be". 

One option known to be under discussion in Conservative circles is the removal of the cap on tuition fees all together (the policy recommended by the 2010 Browne Review), with universities free to charge as much as they want in a pure market system. In order to ensure that the new model is affordable, institutions could be required to provide loans to students to cover the share of the fee above £9,000. One figure commonly proposed by vice-chancellors is £16,000 (the annual cost of educating an undergraduate). 

With the Tories likely to go into the general election refusing to rule out another increase in tuition fees (if not ruling one in), the question is raised of where the Lib Dems, the party more associated with this policy area than any other, will stand. After much internal angst, the party endorsed the current system at its autumn conference last year while retaining a commitment to review the system after the general election and abolish fees "if possible or necessary". The latter ambition is rejected by ministers, who rightly warn that a pledge of this kind would not be regarded as credible by voters. But while the current limit of £9,000 has been accepted, and dreams of abolition have been abandoned, this leaves unanswered the question of whether the party will promise to oppose a new rise in fees. Nick Clegg has previously reassured students, "Don't worry, we're not going to raise tuition fees to £16,000", and plenty in the party will want this evolve into a formal election pledge. 

But recent history means Lib Dem ministers will be understandably wary of such a commitment. It was the party's promise in 2010 to vote against any increase in fees that led to its post-election humiliation when fees were tripled by the coalition; it cannot risk a repeat. Yet any refusal to oppose an increase will lead to accusations from Labour that the party has pre-emptively accepted Conservative plans for a rise. With Ed Miliband expected to propose a reduction in fees to £6,000 (not least on the grounds that it could save money), the Lib Dems risk being further disadvantaged in the battle for the student vote (on which the survival of several of their MPs rests). How to resolve this dilemma is a question Clegg will soon need to answer. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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The Future of the Left: trade unions are more important than ever

Trade unions are under threat - and without them, the left has no future. 

Not accepting what you're given, when what you're given isn't enough, is the heart of trade unionism.

Workers having the means to change their lot - by standing together and organising is bread and butter for the labour movement - and the most important part? That 'lightbulb moment' when a group of workers realise they don't have to accept the injustice of their situation and that they have the means to change it.

That's what happened when a group of low-paid hospital workers organised a demonstration outside their hospital last week. As more of their colleagues clocked out and joined them on their picket, thart lightbulb went on.

When they stood together, proudly waving their union flags, singing a rhythmic chant and raising their homemade placards demanding a living wage they knew they had organised the collective strength needed to win.

The GMB union members, predominantly BAME women, work for Aramark, an American multinational outsourcing provider. They are hostesses and domestics in the South London and Maudsley NHS Trust, a mental health trust with sites across south London.

Like the nurses and doctors, they work around vulnerable patients and are subject to verbal and in some cases physical abuse. Unlike the nurses and doctors their pay is determined by the private contractor that employs them - for many of these staff that means statutory sick pay, statutory annual leave entitlement and as little as £7.38 per hour.

This is little more than George Osborne's new 'Living Wage' of £7.20 per hour as of April.

But these workers aren't fighting for a living wage set by government or even the Living Wage Foundation - they are fighting for a genuine living wage. The GMB union and Class think tank have calculated that a genuine living wage of £10ph an hour as part of a full time contract removes the need for in work benefits.

As the TUC launches its 'Heart Unions' week of action against the trade union bill today, the Aramark workers will be receiving ballot papers to vote on whether or not they want to strike to win their demands.

These workers are showing exactly why we need to 'Heart Unions' more than ever, because it is the labour movement and workers like these that need to start setting the terms of the real living wage debate. It is campaigns like this, low-paid, in some cases precariously employed and often women workers using their collective strength to make demands on their employer with a strategy for winning those demands that will begin to deliver a genuine living wage.

It is also workers like these that the Trade Union Bill seeks to silence. In many ways it may succeed, but in many other ways workers can still win.

Osborne wants workers to accept what they're given - a living wage on his terms. He wants to stop the women working for Aramark from setting an example to other workers about what can be achieved.

There is no doubting that achieving higher ballot turn outs, restrictions on picket lines and most worryingly the use of agency workers to cover strikers work will make campaigns like these harder. But I refuse to accept they are insurmountable, or that good, solid organisation of working people doesn't have the ability to prevail over even the most authoritarian of legislation.

As the TUC launch their Heart Unions week of action against the bill these women are showing us how the labour movement can reclaim the demands for a genuine living wage. They also send a message to all working people, the message that the Tories fear the most, that collective action can still win and that attempts to silence workers can still be defeated.