Tory fightback over tuition fees begins

Long-awaited review of higher education funding has power to woo younger voters but is politically ‘risky’

First introduced by Labour, tuition fees have now risen to £9,250 a year
(Image credit: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

The Government is launching a review of university tuition fees, with Theresa May hoping to woo younger voters, as the Tories finally tackle what the BBC’s Sean Coughlan calls “one of the toughest domestic decisions facing a fragile government”.

First introduced under Tony Blair, tuition fees have been a political hot potato for successive governments. May campaigned for the 2005 election on a Tory manifesto which pledged to scrap them - before the Coalition government voted to raise them to £9,000, despite a strict commitment by the Lib Dems to do the opposite.

The issue dominated last year’s general election, with many commentators saying after the ballot that Jeremy Corbyn’s promise to scrap fees helped Labour garner the youth vote, contributing to its remarkable surge.

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Realising the Tories must do more to woo this younger demographic, Theresa May has signalled her intention to freeze tuition fee increases while the wide-ranging review into higher education funding goes ahead.

Former education secretary Justine Greening and former universities minister Jo Johnson were long seen as obstacles to a shake-up of the university funding system but with them gone, the way is now open for May to make good on her pledge.

Earlier this month, the i newspaper reported that the Treasury had “cleared the way for May to slash tuition fees by as much as a third as part of Downing Street’s push to broaden the Conservatives’ appeal among voters”.

However, some Tories have warned a blanket cut to fees would simply be a “gift to the middle classes”.

Robert Halfon, Tory chair of the education select committee, warned: “If we are going to overhaul fees it has to work for the most disadvantaged students. Too many students are getting paltry returns from attending university.”

Others, such as former Labour minister Peter Hain, have argued for tuition fees to be replaced in favour of a graduate tax.

An attempt by May to win over the youth vote by overhauling fees would be “high risk”, says former universities minister Lord Willets. He argues the government cannot trump Corbyn, with Labour having already promised to scrap fees, while a move to placate the young could backfire and put off some older voters.

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