A small group of Liberal Democrat backbenchers are trying to postpone Thursday’s crucial vote on university tuition fees, as the party struggles to find consensus on the divisive issue.
Leader Nick Clegg has been attempting to broker agreement on a collective abstention in the vote in the hope of preserving unity, even though he has publicly stated that he would like to vote for the package, which trebles the maximum annual fee to £9,000.
He will address his parliamentary party in the Commons on Tuesday in a last-ditch effort to prevent a three-way split, but reports suggested that he has yet to persuade key backbenchers like president Tim Farron and former leaders Charles Kennedy and Sir Menzies Campbell not to join Labour in the no lobby.
Vince Cable has been increasingly public about his desire to vote in favour of the legislation which he is responsible as Business Secretary for taking through Parliament.
Now backbencher Greg Mulholland is pushing a fourth option of calling off the vote, so that a full public consultation on the future of university funding in England can be carried out ahead of a Government White Paper in 2011.
“It is not in anyone’s interests to do this at this stage,” Mr Mulholland told The Guardian. “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.”
Mr Mulholland has tabled an early-day motion in the Commons, which has so far gained the support only of fellow Lib Dem John Leech and Green MP Caroline Lucas. But he is hoping to persuade the Lib Dem leadership – and their Conservative coalition partners – that delay is the best way of avoiding a damaging split which could do serious harm to the Government’s stability.
Ministers on Sunday tried to shore up support for the university funding package by unveiling £150 million worth of help, which could see fees waived for one or two years for 18,000 of the poorest students under the National Scholarship Programme.
National Union of Students president Aaron Porter said that the support paled in comparison to the £500 million being cut from the Educational Maintenance Allowance for sixth-formers from disadvantaged backgrounds. He said: “They are giving a little with one hand but taking considerably more with the other hand.”
And Labour’s shadow business secretary John Denham said that the move amounted to an admission that higher fees will put poorer students off university. In a letter to Mr Cable, Mr Denham said the announcement of the Scholarship scheme “makes it very clear that you do believe that high fees can deter students from low-income backgrounds”.