Lib-Lab talks seek to avert tuition fees split.

Lib-Lab talks seek to avert tuition fees split.

 

The collapse of the coalition would be a severe blow to closer co-operation between the parties at Westminster.

In an effort to keep a lid on the issue, they are expected to set up a working group to examine the recommendations of the independent commission, headed by Andrew Cubie, and report in January.The Liberal Democrats made the abolition of tuition fees the central plank of their campaign for the Scottish Parliament and only joined the coalition after the two parties agreed to refer the issue to the independent commission.

Both Chancellor Gordon Brown and Education Secretary David Blunkett are opposed to the abolition of tuition fees. They claim they do not act as a brake on working-class students. No parent is expected to pay any part of the fee if he or she is earning less than £17,300 a year.

However, Scotland’s First Minister Donald Dewar has been more willing to strike a deal with his Liberal Democrat opposite number, Jim Wallace, to retain the coalition.

Lib-Lab talks seek to avert tuition fees split.

It is now expected by Scottish Ministers that Cubie will propose the retention of fees, but also suggest the reintroduction of maintenance grants for low-income groups.

He has been struck by the degree of genuine student hardship and the numbers of students now working to fund their education. A grant in place of the first £1,000 loan entitlement would cost £70m long term, Cubie calculates.

The Scottish Liberal Democrats have implacably opposed tuition fees, but the offer of maintenance grants, so long as they are set at a high enough level and funded, could be enough to get them off the hook.

Wallace is known to want to shift ground, aware that the collapse of the coalition would have a far more damaging impact on Labour-Liberal Democrat co-operation at Westminster.

Labour MP John McAllion said last night: ‘The return to a system of grants would be very welcome on Labour benches, but if it is set at £600 or £700 a year, that is tokenism. It would need to be set at around £2,000 at the outset.’

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