Threat of coalition split over tuition fees

Graduation time: But fees are likely to rise in future
Graduation time: But fees are likely to rise in future

By staff

David Willetts emphasised a new faultline in the coalition government today with outspoken comments on university tuition fees.

The universities minister gave his strongest indication yet that tuition fees would rise, telling students to consider it "more as an obligation to pay higher income tax" than a debt.

The statement highlights the disagreement at the heart of government over the fees, which have already burdened Nick Clegg's leadership of the Liberal Democrats.

Much of the third party's success in university towns is down to its commitment to scrap tuition fees.

The last Lib Dem annual conference saw Mr Clegg under considerable pressure when he downgraded the commitment in light of the recession, but the party remains committed to getting rid of the fees in the long run.

The issue is one of those on which the Lib Dems could abstain in the coalition policy documents published after the general election, but Mr Willetts' comments, to the Guardian newspaper, reveal the vast difference between the two parties on the issue.

The universities minister said the student degree courses were a "burden on the taxpayer that had to be tackled".

He stopped short of pre-empting the upcoming independent review on the matter, being conducted by Lord Browne, on whether they should rise from the current £3,225 a year.

Mr Willetts did lambaste Labour, however, for its "catastrophic failure" to properly explain the system to students.

The fees system sees universities charge fees which the Student Loans Company pays and then reclaims from students when they start earning over £15,000 a year.

But in a further sign of upcoming reform, Mr Willetts branded the system "unsustainable" and in need of "radical change".


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