THE Liberal Democrats could face a student backlash at the ballot box over their U-turn on tuition fees according to results of an exclusive Yorkshire Post survey.
The online student poll, which received 966 responses after being circulated through university student unions in the region, showed almost 70 per cent of respondents had backed the Liberal Democrats before the last general election but less than ten per cent were planning to vote for them now, with another 17 per cent undecided.
The majority of those who voted for the party in 2010 cited the Lib Dems’ plan to abolish tuition fees and pledges to oppose any increase during this Parliament as one of the reasons they supported them.
In its first year in office the Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition voted through plans to almost treble the maximum cap on tuition fees to £9,000 a year.
The decision sparked student protests in London and on university campuses in Yorkshire with the Liberal Democrats and its party leader, Deputy Prime Minister and Sheffield Hallam MP Nick Clegg, the focus of some of the anger.
With the new tuition fee regime starting next month, the Yorkshire Post has carried out an online poll to gauge student opinions on the higher fees and the Liberal Democrats following the events of 2010.
The Liberal Democrats dismissed the Yorkshire Post poll as “unscientific” and said its results should not be interpreted as a fair reflection of public opinion.
However, Sheffield Students Union president Abdi-Aziz Suleiman said the results reflect the sense of “betrayal” felt among students after many Lib Dem candidates pledged to oppose any increase in fees.
The survey showed that of 966 respondents 69 per cent indicated they had supported the Liberal Democrats in 2010. Some 27.5 per cent of respondents said the Lib Dems’ opposition to fees was the main reason they voted for them while 24.7 per cent said it was one of the factors. Another 16.8 per cent said it was not a reason for them supporting the Lib Dems.
When asked if they would vote for the party in the next election 60 per cent of the respondents said no and another 13.3 per cent said probably not.
The poll showed 4.5 per cent said they would vote Lib Dem and another four per cent said they probably would while 17.4 per cent were undecided.
Almost two thirds of the people taking part in the survey said fees of up to £9,000 a year would have stopped them applying for university.
The poll also found that almost a quarter of respondents believe that university education should be free of charge – as it was until 2004 when the Labour government first introduced “top-up fees”, having said in its 2001 election manifesto that it would not do so. Just over three-quarters of respondents accepted that students should pay some form of tuition fee.
The poll also found 66.6 per cent of respondents were not impressed with any political party over the issue of fees. Results show 16.4 per cent said they were impressed with Labour, 5.4 per cent were impressed with Conservatives and 2.5 per cent said they were impressed with the Liberal Democrats while six per cent said they were impressed with others.
Some 70.7 per cent said the decision to raise fees to up to £9,000 a year had affected their support of the Liberal Democrats while 22.5 per cent said it hadn’t.
When asked if they planned to switch their vote from the Liberal Democrats, 44.3 per cent said they would vote Labour, 12.4 per cent said Conservative and 25.4 per cent said other parties.
A Liberal Democrat spokesman said: “This is an unscientific survey that should not be interpreted as a fair reflection of public opinion.
“However, what is important is that young people are not put off going to university because of the myths surrounding tuition fees.
“The policy is effectively a time-limited graduate tax and only those who go on to be very wealthy will pay the fees back in full. Most will not pay £9,000 a year or close to it. You pay nothing up front and only pay anything at all when you earn more than £21,000. If you don’t get a well- paid job after university you won’t have to pay anything back.
“Having come third in the general election, and with Labour and the Conservatives committed to raising fees, the Liberal Democrats were unable to deliver their policy. Instead, we worked to ensure the fees system was as fair as possible.”
But Mr Suleiman said the results of the poll reflected a sense of betrayal among students. He added: “The results are not surprising at all. It would have been more surprising if their support among students had held up. Politicians should not think they can fail to fulfil their own pledges and get away with it.”
Before the last general election the Liberal Democrats had vowed to phase out tuition fees. A policy document taken from the party’s website in 2010 said: “We will scrap unfair tuition fees for all students taking their first degrees, saving them nearly £10,000 each. We have a financially responsible plan to phase out fees over six years so that the change is affordable in these difficult economic times.”
Commenting on the results of the survey Toni Pearce, the National Union of Students’ deputy president, said: “The votes of students were courted by many high- profile politicians at the last election and it is not surprising that many feel let down by those that promised to fight for them.
“Students will remember those politicians of all parties who stuck to their pledges to vote against a rise in tuition fees and that loyalty should be rewarded but those that betrayed their trust will have to work very hard earn it back.”