Britain's coalition under pressure in university fees vote

9th December 2010, Comments 0 comments

Britain's coalition government faces its biggest test yet Thursday in a key parliamentary vote on whether to allow English universities to treble tuition fees.

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.

As students kicked off a fresh round of protests across the country, 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 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.

Miliband claimed the coalition was now "in chaos", as Lib Dems prepared to vote against the measure. Cameron hit back, accusing Labour of "rank hypocrisy".

Police were on high alert as some 10,000 protesters geared up for a demonstration in central London later Thursday, in the same area that mass protests last month descended into chaos.

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

Several days of fraught negotiations led to the formation of a coalition with the third-placed Lib Dems, but the parties have never been regarded as natural bedfellows.

Clegg's party 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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