Britain’s coalition government was facing a reality check yesterday, with lawmakers scheduled to vote on an unpopular proposal to triple university tuition fees, a plan that has brought students into the streets protesting about a broken campaign promise.
The vote poses a crucial test of the viability of the Conservative-led partnership with the Liberal Democrats and casts an uncomfortable spotlight on British Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, who like other Liberal Democrat candidates signed a pre-election pledge to oppose any such hike.
In the coalition agreement, the Liberal Democrats reserved the right to abstain in any vote to raise tuition fees. That created an awkward position for Business Secretary Vince Cable, a Liberal Democrat, who at one point suggested he might abstain from voting for the proposal even though it came from his office.
While some Liberal Democrats in the House of Commons have declared their opposition, that is unlikely to block the hike.
“The real danger for the government is not that they won’t pass it through, but that it will be a policy fiasco,” said Patrick Dunleavy, a professor of political science at the London School of Economics.
“By picking this fight with the student body ... the government seems to have gotten itself into choppy water,” he said.
All of this has made Clegg one of the least popular politicians on university campuses, and Britain’s tabloids have latched on to the theme of betrayal.
“Clegg today will expose himself as the pathetic Pinocchio of politics,” read the front page of the Daily Mirror — a point underscored by an altered photo of his growing “nose of shame.”
British Prime Minister David Cameron’s government defends the move as a painful necessity to deal with a record budget deficit and a sputtering economy. To balance its books, the UK passed a four-year package of spending cuts worth ￡81 billion (US$128 billion), which will lead to the loss of hundreds of thousands of public sector jobs and cut or curtail hundreds of government programs.
The government proposed raising the maximum university tuition fees in England from ￡3,000 to ￡9,000. Students reacted with mass protests that have been marred by violence.
Reacting to the protests, the government modified its plan by raising the income level at which graduates start repaying student loans, and by making more part-time students eligible for loans.
“The concessions are not enough,” said 19-year-old City University student Carter Rothgard. “It still doesn’t make it any easier for us to go to school.”
Students had planned another round of nationwide protests and sit-ins for yesterday, saying they would not stop until tuition increases are abandoned and full university subsidies are restored. Without that, they argue, piles of debt will plague graduates and make a well-rounded education unattainable for many.
Without the income from higher fees, Cameron said on Wednesday, universities will fall behind international education standards.
“We have to make a choice here,” Cameron told the House of Commons. “If we want to see university education expand, if we want to see universities well funded we have to work out where that money will come from.”
Students should pay more since most taxpayers “don’t go to university and don’t benefit from university education,” Cameron said.
Ed Miliband, leader of the opposition Labour party, fired back during the heated question and answer session, saying the hikes will burden British students at public universities with the highest fees in the industrialized world. Miliband said the education policy was in chaos.
“Only the prime minister could treble tuition fees and then claim that it is a better deal for students,” Miliband said. “No one is convinced, frankly.”