Protests against proposed increases in tuition fees risk scaring young people from poor backgrounds off going to university, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg has warned.
In a letter to the National Union of Students (NUS), Mr Clegg said that many young people now believe – wrongly – that they will have to pay large sums up-front before they go to university.
He appealed to the NUS to ensure that its campaign against fee rises does not have negative consequences on efforts to widen access to higher education.
Mr Clegg’s letter to NUS president Aaron Porter came as MPs prepared to debate university funding in the House of Commons.
And fresh protests are expected in central London on Tuesday, with activists calling for school pupils and higher education students to go on strike.
Previous demonstrations saw windows smashed at Conservative Party HQ on November 10 and thousands of students “kettled” by police in Whitehall last week.
Mr Clegg appealed to the NUS to help ensure that those taking part in protests understood “the true picture” of the proposed reforms, which he insisted were fairer than the current system.
“All of us involved in this debate have a greater responsibility to ensure that we do not let our genuinely-held disagreements over policy mean that we sabotage an aim that we all share – to encourage people from poorer backgrounds to go to university,” said the Liberal Democrat leader.
The NUS has launched a “right to recall” campaign to force by-elections in seats held by Liberal Democrat MPs – including Mr Clegg – who signed a pledge to oppose increases in fees before the general election. Liberal Democrats secured a provision in the agreement forming the coalition Government that their MPs can abstain in the vote to increase fees, though it remains unclear whether the party’s ministers will do so.
But Lib Dems are expected to vote against a Labour motion in the Commons on Tuesday which calls on ministers to delay legislation on the fees hike until after they have published a White Paper spelling out their vision of the future of higher education. Labour’s “opposition day” motion will give MPs their first chance of a full-scale debate on university funding since the Government unveiled proposals to increase the cap on tuition fees from £3,375 to as much as £9,000.