Ed Davey, the Liberal Democrat energy secretary, has described Labour’s pledge to cut the tuition fee cap in England from £9,000 to £6,000 a year as stupid and followed Vince Cable in saying his party would block such a cut if in coalition.
The Lib Dems, eager to restore credibility on the issue in the wake of their broken 2010 election pledge to abolish tuition fees, are angry that the Labour plan will help richer graduates. Cable believes the coalition, after some false starts, has landed on a defensible policy that amounts to a graduate contribution based on the ability to pay.
But the party’s vehement opposition to a cut in tuition fees is remarkable since at the last election in 2010 they were committed to abolition, and said they had been forced to compromise in government by their Conservative partners.
The party has also implicitly acknowledged there is a long term problem with the system by saying it will support a wider review of student finance in government.
Nick Clegg said the key issue was the level of maintenance grants, an issue that was barely addressed in the package unveiled on Friday.
Asked on BBC Radio 5’s Pienaar’s Politics whether he would refuse to carry out the policy in government, Davey said: “Yes I would … what Labour is doing is giving £2bn to the richer graduates. These are people who start with a salary of £35,000, who are likely to be the bankers and hedge fund managers.”
He made it clear that his party would argue strongly against the policy in any coalition negotiations with Labour: “If you’ve got £2bn, would you spend it on the richer graduates or would you spend it on other things that will actually help the people who are in trouble in society or help get that deficit down?
“We will make the argument at the election and in those coalition negotiations that it would be a total waste of money. We will stand up for making sure we can get the economy right, get the deficit down, and not wasting money on stupid policies like this latest Miliband policy.”
He added: “ If there’s one party that’s betrayed students, it’s Labour because they had a majority government and in the election before that they said they wouldn’t introduce tuition fees. They introduced them and they weren’t in coalition.
“The next election they said they wouldn’t increase fees and they were a majority government but they increased them. They didn’t have to compromise with anybody, they just reneged on their promises.”
But Liam Byrne, the shadow higher education minister said: “The fact the Lib Dems are now saying they’d try to block Labour’s progressive plan to cut the costs of going to university tells everyone why they can’t trust the Lib Dems. It’s lower fees over their dead body, but it was yes sir when they backed the Tories to treble tuition fees, raise VAT, implement the Bedroom Tax and reorganise the NHS.”
He added that the policy was progressive if the changes to pension reliefs were included. He said Labour wanted to make student funding fit for the future by addressing the long term debt that was building up as students failed to repay their loans at the rate the government once expected.
This article was written by Patrick Wintour, political editor, for theguardian.com on Sunday 1st March 2015 15.59 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010