Britain's coalition under pressure in university fees vote

9th December 2010, Comments 0 comments

Britain's coalition faced its biggest test yet Thursday in a parliamentary vote on whether to let English universities treble tuition fees, as thousands of students geared up to protest the measures.

The controversial proposals -- which will see students charged fees up to 9,000 pounds (14,200 dollars, 10,700 euros) a year -- have exposed deep tensions within the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition.

Despite a series of last-minute concessions by the government, Lib Dem lawmakers are expected to rebel on a large scale against the proposals which amount to a reversal of one of the party's most cherished policies.

Although the size of the government's majority in the House of Commons (the lower house of parliament) means the measure is expected to pass, the fiercely debated issue has put huge strain on the government formed after May's polls.

The Lib Dems, led by Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, made a pledge to phase out tuition fees altogether a central plank of their manifesto for the general election.

But in agreeing to form a coalition with the larger Conservative party, led by Prime Minister David Cameron, they performed a U-turn on the issue, much to the horror of students, university unions and many within the Lib Dem party itself.

The proposals have already provoked violent demonstrations and police were on high alert Thursday as thousands of students, lecturers and school pupils were expected to take to the streets of central London.

The proposal to raise the ceiling on fees from the current level of 3,290 pounds a year comes against a backdrop of huge cuts to higher education funding in Britain, part of major budget reductions to tackle a record deficit.

Cameron clashed Wednesday with the leader of the opposition Labour party, Ed Miliband, who accused the prime minister of being "out of touch with ordinary people," during the premier's weekly grilling in the House of Commons.

Cameron hit back, accusing Labour of "rank hypocrisy".

Business Secretary Vince Cable announced concessions to the proposals on the eve of the vote in a bid to win over doubters, including changes to the threshold at which students would start to repay loans.

The coalition was formed after May's polls produced an inconclusive result, with the centre-right Conservatives winning the most seats in the House of Commons but not enough to form a government on their own.

Clegg's centrist party -- which came third in the election -- was widely viewed as more similar to the Labour party, which was ousted at the election after 13 years in power.

© 2010 AFP

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