Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg has sent out a campaign leaflet in his Sheffield Hallam constituency warning voters that under the Conservatives top-up fees will rise.
The campaign leaflet, available on the Straight Choice website, claims: “The Liberal Democrats are committed to getting rid of tuition fees and oppose the top-up fees that Labour and the Conservatives support.”
“The Conservatives want to raise tuition fees to £7,000,” Mr Clegg warns.
But, on what basis is this claim about future fees made? Full Fact decided to investigate existing party policy on tuition fees to see if there was any truth to Mr Clegg’s claim.
Back in 2004 when the Labour Government introduced top-up fees the measure was opposed by both Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. The two opposition parties included a commitment to scrapping the fees in their 2005 election manifestos.
Since then David Cameron has announced a shift in his party’s position. He said: “I’m afraid we’re going to have to keep student fees…. The money’s got to come from somewhere”.
Lord Browne is currently conducting an independent review on higher education finance with its recommendations expected to be published this autumn. One of the proposals under consideration is raising the cap on fees.
But, have the Conservatives now gone a stage further and made a commitment to raising the cap to £7,000, as Mr Clegg’s campaign literature suggests?
The simple answer is no.
Universities spokesman David Willetts has entertained the possibility of the tuition fees cap being raised. But, he has also made clear the Conservatives will waitfor the findings of the funding review before deciding policy. This is also the position of the Labour party.
Official Conservative policy states: “We recognise that higher fees have brought benefits to universities, but we need to ensure that they are providing a better student experience in return.
“We have called for the Government’s ongoing review of higher education funding to consider doing much more to help people from disadvantaged backgrounds get to university.”
Speaking to university vice-chancellors, Mr Willetts expanded on the theme.
“No secretary of state is going to sign off an increase in fee income without clear evidence that students will gain directly from paying higher fees and taking on yet more debt.
“So a better educational experience for students is an essential quid pro quo for any change to the cap,” he said.
Mr Willetts appears to suggest that the Conservatives could support a change in the level of the cap if certain conditions are met. However, nowhere has a clear commitment been made.
Full Fact contacted Nick Clegg’s campaign office. Despite numerous attempts to establish the source for their claim about Conservative policy, his office have not been able to provide their sources. One spokesperson commented that Conservative policy on tuition fees had been “widely reported in the press”.
Another Liberal Democrat website has made the same claim on the basis of an Evening Standard article in October 2009. The article implies the Tories would consider raising the cap to £7,000 a year but does not provide firm evidence.
The Liberal Democrats do have a distinctive position on university fees. They are the only major party now committed to abolishing tuition fees, albeit gradually.
While Mr Clegg and other education commentators may suspect fees will rise under a Conservative government, telling voters that is the intention of a political rival on the basis of a hunch is a step too far.