Students await MPs vote on tuition fees

It's a long time since a House of Commons vote was preceded by a succession of marches, sporadic outbreaks of violence and the apparent split of a political party.

After years of failing to engage young people in politics, MPs at last seem to have solved that problem – albeit unintentionally.

For while the occasional violence at recent demonstrations has been unsavoury, at least the next generation of leaders is taking an interest in politics.

At the heart of this reactionary renaissance is the plan to almost double tuition fees to �6,000 per year – or �9,000 if universities can demonstrate that they are doing their bit to attract young people from poorer backgrounds.

None of the money has to be repaid until graduates are earning at least �21,000 a year (up from the current �15,000 trigger).

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As D-day has loomed ever closer, the government has tried to win over the doubters with a series of possible concessions – including a plan for the government and universities to cover the first two years of fees for anyone who was eligible for free school meals.

Despite collectively signing a pre-election pledge to oppose any increase in tuition fees, Liberal Democrat MPs are now split over what to do.

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It has led to a fascinating pair of Norfolk twists in the national tale.

North Norfolk MP Norman Lamb admitted in the EDP that signing the pledge had been 'wrong', and indicated that he was in favour of the package of measures.

His admission prompted a furious retort from former Norwich South MP Charles Clarke – who, as education secretary in 2005, drove the current tuition fees rules through the commons.

He said Mr Lamb should apologise to his electors for 'deliberately misleading' them by signing the pledge and then changing his mind.

Mr Clarke's successor as Norwich South MP Simon Wright ended a period of uncertainty – during which he came under intense pressure from University of East Anglia students on his patch – by announcing last week that he would vote against the rise in fees.

Current and future students do not look as though they are about to be won over by the legislation, or the concessions.

Hundreds of East Anglian students joined the first anti-fees march in London on November 10, and have since staged a series of local protests and lobbied Mr Wright.

Today, members of the Union of UEA Students and other students from across Norwich will be in London for some 11th-hour lobbying.

Tom Dolton, communications officer, said: 'We are pleased with the number of students that want to come down to London to meet with their MPs immediately before the vote.

'Hopefully we can convince some that supporting students is supporting the future of our country and that cuts to higher education are short-sighted and narrow-minded.'

Among the main concerns of the opponents to the government's plans are that the sheer size of the fees will put people off from trying higher education.

And they are convinced that the majority of those who will decide not to stay in education will be those from the poorest backgrounds – the very people that the government said it was attempting to reach more effectively with its proposals.

Only time will tell who is right.

If the coalition government has calculated correctly, today's vote may prove to be a revolutionary re-balancing of the opportunities available to people from different income backgrounds.

If they are wrong and the student leaders are right, it could reinforce and deepen the historic divide.

Regardless of those points, if the rise is voted through today – and it remains an 'if' as MPs continue to declare themselves – its opponents are unlikely to accept the decision meekly.

The current round of protests will likely get bigger, louder, longer and – potentially – more violent as frustration spills over.

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