Britain's coalition under pressure in university fees vote

9th December 2010, Comments 0 comments

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

The controversial proposals -- which will see students at English universities charged fees of 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, Liberal Democrat 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.

Student protests against the measure have descended into violence, with demonstrators attacking the building housing the Conservative Party's headquarters last month.

Police were on high alert Thursday as thousands of students, lecturers and school pupils were expected to take to the streets of central London again as lawmakers were gathering to vote on the measure.

Although the size of the government's majority in the House of Commons, or 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 Liberal Democrats, led by Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, made a pledge to phase out tuition fees altogether as a central plank of their election manifesto.

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

Clegg, who has appeared visibly uncomfortable in recent days over the issue, said raising fees was "not the policy that ideally the Liberal Democrats would have wanted to deliver".

But he added: "In the circumstances where the country, as a whole, we don't have very much money, we are asking millions of people to make sacrifices, where there an increasing number of young people we want to help to go university."

It was "not unreasonable" to ask graduates to contribute to the costs of their education, he insisted.

But in a sign of the deep divisions, one Lib Dem lawmaker who says he will vote against the measure, Greg Mulholland, said it would discourage people from modest backgrounds from going to university.

"It is not in anyone's interests to do this at this stage," he told The Guardian newspaper.

"Sometimes the most courageous thing to do is to admit you need a rethink. The best thing for higher education is not to force this vote through on Thursday."

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.

The rise in fees is also supported by the majority of universities, who say they need the additional funding.

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.

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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