Alexander Smith: They've lost the argument... now they could lose power

NICK Clegg's failure to reach agreement with all rebel Liberal Democrat MPs on the Government's plans to increase university tuition fees to £9,000 per year must now confirm the worst fears of senior coalition Ministers: they have lost the argument and with every day that passes, more and more of their own backbenchers – Conservatives among them – are turning on the Government.

It is little wonder, then, that the Government has rushed forward a Parliamentary vote on the hike in tuition fees, to take place later today. But this will hardly be the end of the issue for the coalition parties.

Only last week, Professor David Eastwood, the Vice Chancellor of Birmingham University (and member of the Browne Review), called on the Government to remove the fee cap of 9,000, arguing that this issue will need to be revisited in future reviews of university funding. No wonder prospective students and their families are angry.

If he gets his way, just how much more will students be expected to pay in five to 10 years? 12,000? 20,000?

In making this argument, the Birmingham VC is very clearly putting the financial interests of his university ahead of his students. What makes a hike in tuition fees so attractive to many vice-chancellors is that it will allow them to recover lost income (and more) from the savage cuts to university teaching budgets announced in the Comprehensive Spending Review.

Overall, funding for higher education teaching is being reduced by 83 per cent. For the arts, business, humanities, law and social sciences, the teaching budget is being withdrawn altogether. The fees students in these subjects will be charged will have to cover 100 per cent of the costs of their teaching.

But what the Birmingham VC is arguing goes even further. He wants to lift the cap on tuition fees in order to make a profit out of students. No doubt he would argue that with this extra cash, he could invest in his own university, thus improving its research and teaching. But this will reinforce a worrying pattern: as funding and investment is concentrated in the hands of a few elite universities, they will be able to charge even higher fees to prospective students, who will in turn have to fight even harder to achieve a place.

And on whom will the burden of paying such fees fall most heavily? There has been much debate in the media about the impact higher tuition fees will have on social mobility. Obviously, students educated at the same elite private schools to which David Cameron, George Osborne and Nick Clegg went will not be deterred from paying ever-increasing fees.

But talk of bursaries and Oxbridge places for the very brightest among the poor, while commendable, barely scratches the surface of this issue. There will be many more students – middle class and poor alike – who will be discouraged from embarking on a degree because, while perfectly able to do the academic work, they will not qualify for a bursary and will lack the funds to cover the fees.

The hike in tuition fees will hit lower middle class families who aspire to send their children to university the hardest. These families will be relegated to local, second-tier universities starved of public funding. This will do nothing for social mobility. However, from the perspective of those in charge, it will effectively put the lower middle classes back in their place.

Some commentators have likened the issue of tuition fees to the poll tax from the late 1980s. But if there is a battle to be fought over access to higher education, it lies beyond the student demonstrations and "sit ins". It will, in fact, be a kind of Tory civil war in which the upper classes pull up the drawbridge and protect their privileges from the aspirational, lower middle classes, the very people who Margaret Thatcher –the daughter of a green grocer – set out to free.

This is the real fault line that could bring the Government down. It has been started by David Davis, the Haltemprice and Howden MP and former Shadow Home Secretary, who will vote against his party. And senior coalition figures know it. That's exactly why they are trying to frog-march their MPs to vote for the hike in university tuition fees today before the discontent amongst Conservative voters spreads.

But it is difficult to miss the perverse irony of a Government led by a wealthy, Oxbridge-educated elite proudly invoking the legacy of Margaret Thatcher as they attack the real "children of Thatcher"– the aspirational lower middle classes.

Dr Alexander Smith is a Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Huddersfield.