Students threaten to unseat MPs over tuition fees

By Sean Coughlan
BBC News education correspondent

image captionStudents are staging a march against higher fees and university cuts

Thousands of students and lecturers are descending on London to demonstrate against plans to almost treble tuition fees in England to £9,000 per year.

The National Union of Students is threatening to try to unseat MPs who go back on pre-election pledges to oppose any rise in tuition fees.

It says the Liberal Democrats face an electoral "wipeout" if they break their pledge to vote against higher fees.

The coalition government says its plans are "fairer" than the current system.

But the UCU lecturers' union leader, Sally Hunt, attacked the proposals which will see the upper limit for fees rising from £3,290 to £9,000 per year from 2012.

Student targets

"There is nothing fair or progressive about tripling the cost of a degree and axing college grants that are often the difference between students being able to study or not," said Ms Hunt.

Student leaders say they expect 24,000 people to take part in the demonstration in Westminster.

They say they will try to use the proposed "right to recall" legislation to unseat MPs who ditch their election pledge to oppose an increase in tuition fees.

This proposal - which is not law yet - would mean that MPs could in effect face a "no confidence vote" from their constituents and be forced to stand down or face a by-election.

NUS president Aaron Porter warned that student voters will target Liberal Democrat MPs who failed to keep their promise to vote against a fee increase, threatening to topple MPs with a narrow majority.

There have already been student protests against Liberal Democrat ministers Vince Cable and Chris Huhne.

An effigy of the party leader, Nick Clegg, was hanged by students staging an occupation against the fee increase at Goldsmiths, University of London.

The Universities Minister David Willetts said the government would still support people going to university.

media captionStudent Hannah Williams and lecturer Kathy Taylor will join the anti-tuition fee protest.

"Students will be lent the money to pay the charges in university and will only have to pay back when they're graduates. So I hope that young people who want to go to university will still have the confidence to apply," he said.

"It's very important that they have that opportunity, and they're not going to have to find money in their back pocket to pay for their university education while they're students."

Funding withdrawn

The protest to be staged in London by about 20,000 students and lecturers will challenge the far-reaching funding shake-up being proposed for higher education.

image captionStudents staged a candle lit vigil last night outside the home of Nick Clegg

The higher tuition fees will be used to replace teaching funding being withdrawn as part of public spending cuts.

It is likely to mean that many arts and humanities courses will no longer receive public funding, with financial support restricted to subjects including science, technology, engineering and maths.

"This abolition of funding is a most profound shift," said Mr Porter. "It is the abdication of the state's responsibility."

The protesters are also attacking the removal of education maintenance allowances, which were used to help keep students in sixth forms and further education colleges.

The UCU lecturers' union also warned that there was no certainty that such higher fees would mean a better experience for students.

The union says the cost of university has already increased more than threefold since 1988 - but the student to staff ratio is now worse.

In 1988, there were about 13 students to each academic member of staff, now the figure is 16, despite students paying much more to study.

The coalition government says the proposals will protect poorer students and are designed so that better-off graduates pay higher contributions.

"The coalition government has developed a package that is fairer than the present system of student finance and affordable for the nation. Access to higher education will be on the basis of ability, not ability to pay," said a spokesperson for the Department for Business Innovation and Skills.

"The graduate contribution system will protect the lowest earning graduates and ensure that their contributions are linked to their ability to pay."

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