London: Britain’s parliament will vote on Thursday on plans to raise tuition fees for university students, an issue which has split one of the coalition parties and sparked violent protests in London.
The bill is expected to pass in a vote on Thursday evening, but some members of the Liberal Democrats, the junior partner in the Conservative-led coalition, are expected to oppose it.
Liberal Democrat deputy leader Simon Hughes, who is not a minister in the coalition government, told BBC Newsnight that he would at least abstain on the vote and former party leaders Charles Kennedy and Menzies Campbell are expected to oppose it.
A handful of Conservatives may also rebel in the strongest challenge yet to the authority of the government which took power in May in Britain’s first coalition since World War Two.
University students and school pupils have staged a series of protests in recent weeks, with hundreds of demonstrators arrested and a building housing the Conservative Party headquarters being attacked.
Thousands of protesters were gathering in central London on Thursday and large numbers of police patrolled the area close to parliament in Westminster.
The government has made cutting a record peacetime budget deficit its priority and government departments have to reduce spending by some 19% over the next four years. “The vote on tuition fees will be the first ... acid test of how the coalition holds together,” said Ben Page, chief executive of pollsters Ipsos MORI.
The honeymoon is over for the coalition parties, he said, but securing recovery from recession is voters’ biggest worry.
“Tuition fees may be a storm in a teacup ... the state of the economy is absolutely the issue,” Page said.
Clegg defends move
The government plans to allow universities in England to charge students fees of up to 9,000 pounds ($14,100) per year - almost treble the current limit, as it cuts state funding for higher education as part of an austerity programme.
The Liberal Democrats have angered their many young supporters and have been accused of betrayal for breaking a pre-election pledge to oppose an increase in fees.
Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg defended the policy on Thursday.
“Asking graduates to make a contribution - and only make a contribution after they have left university, no upfront fees whatsoever, and only when they have earned a considerably more amount of money than they do under the present system - that is the best possible choice we could have taken,” he said.
London police warned protesters that violent youths had hijacked recent protests.
Some commentators say the student protests could be a prelude to wider unrest as austerity measures start to bite and hundreds of thousands of jobs are lost in the public sector.