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16 February 2012

The Tory-Lib Dem university battle isn’t over yet

Lifting the penalty on early student loan repayments won't be enough to keep the Tories happy.

By George Eaton

The government’s tuition fees package, you’ll recall, was filleted with “progressive” amendments designed to persuade recalcitrant Lib Dems to back the plans. But we learn from the Daily Telegraph this morning that one of those concessions – fining graduates who pay off their student loans early – has been revoked.

Vince Cable had planned to impose a five per cent charge on the value of early repayments in an attempt to prevent “wealtheir students” from avoiding interest charges. Back in October 2010, the Business Secretary said:

There is an issue about people who go on to very high-earning jobs and who therefore pay off relatively quickly and we do have to think about how to find a way by which they make some sort of contribution towards low-earning graduates.

It was always a dubious proposal. Some of the wealthiest students (or, more accurately, the children of wealthy parents) bypass the loan system altogether by paying their university fees upfront. Indeed, as the liberal think-tank Centre Forum observed, it would likely be low-income graduates who lost out since “debt aversion not affluence is the biggest cause of early repayments”.

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But this isn’t just about bad policy. The Lib Dems agreed to abandon the proposal as a quid pro quo for the appointment of Prof Les Ebdon as the director of the Office for Fair Access. Although Cable’s favoured candidate, Ebdon was attacked by the Tories as a supporter of “social engineering”, with Michael Gove privately lobbying against his appointment and the business select committee voting against it.

One Downing Street source cheerfully tells the Telegraph:

The Lib Dems were very keen to appoint Ebdon and we felt very strongly about penalties for early repayment of loans. This is hopefully good news for tens of thousands of families, as well as many Conservative MPs who had raised concerns about the penalties.

But it’s hard to imagine Tory MPs will be so sanguine. It is they, rather than the Lib Dems, who look like the losers from this affair. The abandoment of early repayment charges is a minor concession that, in most Tories’ eyes, hardly compensates for Ebdon’s three-year appointment.

To the consternation of the Russell Group, Ebdon has threatened to forbid universities from charging the maximum £9,000 tuition fee if they do not meet targets on widening participation. An option he describes, in language strikingly reminiscent of Cable, as “the nuclear button”.

Cable will confirm Ebdon’s appointment next week but expect Tory MPs to take every opportunity to undermine him.