British coalition under strain 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 protested against the proposals in London.

The change -- which would 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.

The move comes amid a series of deep cuts in public spending imposed by the government to slash a record deficit.

Despite a series of last-minute concessions by the government, up to half of the Liberal Democrats' 57 lawmakers are expected to rebel 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 again took to the streets of central London, while lawmakers gathered to vote on the measure.

Prime Minister David Cameron met with his cabinet ahead of the crunch vote.

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 coalition formed after May's polls.

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg's Liberal Democrats, the junior partners in the government, made a pledge to phase out tuition fees altogether as a central plank of their general election manifesto.

But in agreeing to form a coalition with Cameron's Conservatives they performed a U-turn on the fees issue, to the horror of students and many within the Lib Dem party itself.

A defiant Clegg, who has appeared visibly uncomfortable in recent days over the issue, dismissed opponents of the policy as "dreamers".

Clegg insisted he was not ashamed of supporting the plans because he was dealing with "the way the world is".

He admitted that raising fees was "not the policy that ideally the Liberal Democrats would have wanted to deliver", but said it was "not unreasonable" to ask graduates to contribute more to the costs of their education.

In a sign of the deep divisions within his party, one Lib Dem lawmaker who has vowed to vote against the measure, Greg Mulholland, said it would discourage lower-income students 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, which say they need the additional funding.

Cameron, who was schooled at the elite Eton College and Oxford University, clashed Wednesday with the leader of the opposition Labour party, Ed Miliband, a former radical student politician, who accused the prime minister of being "out of touch with ordinary people".

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 election 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 after 13 years in power.

© 2010 AFP

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