UK: Coalition survives tuition fees rebellion

Coalition proposals to allow tuition fees for universities in England to rise to a maximum of £9,000 (US$14,185), triple the existing level, to compensate for an 80% cut in the teaching budget were passed after a stormy House of Commons debate on Thursday night.

But the government majority was slashed to 21 as a reported majority of the 57 MPs in the junior coalition party, the Liberal Democrats, abstained or voted against the measure, including the party's deputy leader, president and two former leaders.

The proposals were passed after weeks of student protests that have seen Liberal Democrat MPs' offices and university buildings occupied and violence erupt at Conservative Party headquarters. There were running clashes with the police in Whitehall on Thursday.

Nick Clegg, Deputy Prime Minister and leader of the Liberal Democrats, said the decision to cut public funding to higher education had been necessary to allow for increased spending on child care and extra support for the school system via a pupil premium.

"In an ideal world, no graduate would have to contribute more for their degree. But our economic reality is far from ideal. The real decision is not if we reform university funding but how we reform it. And how we help the people who need it most," he said.

But as the vote neared the main target of students' protests, the Liberal Democrat party was divided over which way to vote, given that its MPs had individually pledged to vote against fee increases at this year's general election. Yet the policy was put forward by one of their own ministers.

In Parliament on Wednesday, Opposition leader Ed Miliband told Prime Minister David Cameron: "Only the Prime Minister could treble tuition fees and then claim it is a better deal for students." He accused the coalition of slashing funding for universities and "loading the cost onto students and their families".

Masses of students lobbied parliament ahead of the vote and thousands joined a rally and vigil on the nearby Victoria Embankment.

Their target was ministers and MPs in the Liberal Democratic Party, the junior member of the coalition, whose election promises to oppose any tuition fees increases helped a number of MPs in university towns hold on to their seats and give the Liberal Democrats their first taste of power since the Lib-Lab Pact in the 1970s.

In recent weeks some Liberal Democrat MPs' offices have been occupied by protesters who feel they have been betrayed.

The coalition has also announced its intention to axe the Aimhigher programme designed to broaden the appeal of a university education and end payments to young people from low-income families, to encourage them to remain in education beyond 16.

In an attempt to win rebel MPs over, the government announced a series of last-minute additional measures to shore up its claim that the reforms would improve support for disadvantaged students attending university.

This argument was based on the raising of the threshold for paying back loans for fees from £15,000 under the existing arrangements to £21,000 and establishing a progressive pay-back system in which graduates earning the most would pay back most. The threshold at which graduates would begin to repay loans for fees would be raised each year in line with earnings, rather than every five years as previously proposed.

Part-time students would also be able to apply for loans if they studied for a quarter of the year rather than a third, as previously suggested.

At the same time up to 18,000 students from poorer backgrounds will qualify for up to two years' free tuition, and a £150 million a year National Scholarship Programme is to be established to help pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds into university. Also, universities will not be able to raise fees beyond £6,000 unless they take steps to increase access for disadvantaged students, for instance by matching government scholarships.

Clegg, in an article in the Yorkshire Post on Wednesday, said: "Our package contains a new and serious effort to help bright pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds into university. It is nothing short of a national disgrace that Oxford and Cambridge take more students each year from just two schools - Eton and Westminster - than from among the 80,000 school leavers who are eligible for free school meals."

But the government has been unable to dislodge the feeling among many opponents that raising the burden of debt by tripling fees in 2012-13 will put large numbers of young people off going to university at all.

Two Liberal Democrat ministerial aides resigned their posts to vote against the government.

Addressing students at the University College Union-National Union of Students (NUS) rally, Brendan Barber, Trades Union Congress leader, was due to say that the assault on higher education was "just plain wrong".

"We are facing not just massive cuts, but the prospect of our universities becoming no-go zones for the poor and the working-class. Soon what will matter will not be a young person's academic potential but the size of their parents' wallets."

Aaron Porter, NUS President, said the removal of 80% of public funding for the university teaching grant and all public funding for arts, humanities and social science courses - some £2.9 billion of the £3.6 billion provided - by the government for teaching in English universities would do "untold damage to our economy, culture and society".

Challenged by the government to come up with an alternative policy, the NUS has proposed abolishing fees in favour of graduates paying contributions to the future cost of higher education according to their earnings.

The money would be paid into an independent People's Trust for Higher Education. Payment would be made according to the amount of higher education studied, upfront fees for part-time students would be abolished, and employer contributions to the fund would be allowed.

The fees decision contrasts sharply with the position of the Welsh Education Minister Leighton Andrews, who has said that Welsh domiciled students will not have to pay extra fees costs, as these will be met by the Welsh Assembly, wherever they study in the UK. Students domiciled in other UK countries but studying in Wales, however, will have to pay at the increased rate.

By early evening the protesters were fighting running battles with police in Parliament Square, a large bonfire sent plumes of smoke into the London air, and groups of students chanted: "The fight goes on!"

Violent clashes with the police in several locations continued into the night. Protestors smashed windows at The Treasury, shouting, "We want our money back". A breakaway group of protestors gathered a few kilometers away in Oxford Circus, at the heart of London's main shopping street, where more violence erupted when a car carrying the heir to the throne, Prince Charles, and his wife Camilla, was set upon. The window was smashed and paint poured on the vehicle. The Royal couple were shaken but unhurt.