Fees and fairness

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THE complicated manoeuvring involved in coalition politics was exposed again yesterday over leaks Ministers are preparing to drop plans to impose penalties on students who pay off university loans early.

The move is believed to be a concession by the Liberal Democrats as part of a deal which saw their Conservative partners back down over Business Secretary Vince Cable’s choice of candidate to head the Office for Fair Access, which will be responsible for ensuring higher fees do not deter students from low-income backgrounds going to university.

The decision – designed to placate Tory backbenchers who have vigorously opposed Mr Cable’s selection – will benefit wealthier students who will be able to avoid interest charges on 30-year repayment plans.

It remains unlikely that raising fees to a potential £9,000-a-year was ever likely to deter those from better-off backgrounds from university.

The real issue remains the impact of the increase on students with low or average incomes.

There can be little doubt that those countries with the most skilled workforces will enjoy the competitive advantage in a global economy.

Yet, while Ministers will contend that demographics, and not fees, was the reason for the drop in applications for degree places, the fall does suggest that the Government still has still to convince its critics that universities are still open to all.

And, irrespective of whether safeguards on the repayment of fees are adequate or not, the Coalition’s decision to increase fees – and the handling of the issue – remains a stain on its reputation which many will never forget.

Further deals between the two Coalition partners may not be enough to overcome that.