Stephen Williams: 'I tried to change minds on fees'
BRISTOL West MP Stephen Williams says he tried three times to change the Liberal Democrats' minds on tuition fees.
The party's former higher education spokesman said he had repeatedly warned its policymakers to ditch the ambitious pledge to abolish fees. Admitting he had "failed", he reiterated his apology over the u-turn to an audience at the party conference in Brighton last night.
Tuition fees have been a key theme at this week's conference, following Nick Clegg's video apology which became a musical internet sensation.
Despite signing a pledge to ditch fees before the last general election, within a year the Lib Dems had voted through a new regime, which allowed universities to charge up to £9,000 per year – three times the previous level.
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Mr Williams, who abstained on the controversial vote, said: "I had thought as a candidate in 2005 that the policy we had of complete opposition to tuition fees was right."
But during the last Parliament, the pledge became less "relevant", he said. It was an "odd" priority for the party to focus all of its resources into helping young people who were already planning to go to university, he said.
He said: "I tried three times to change our policy... and failed on every occasion. And as this is a week for apologies, I apologise for that, for failing to convince enough of my colleagues that we should have changed the policy."
Mr Williams said he had warned the Lib Dem Federal Policy Committee just before the 2010 General Election that "if we duck this issue now, it will really hurt us."
Mr Williams claimed the new regime was a "much fairer repayment system", and said students' expectations of their university courses were being raised as a result of the reforms.
He also backed universities' right to lower entry requirements for youngsters from disadvantaged backgrounds. A move by Bristol University's law department had been met with "howls of protest," he said, saying he had received files of letters complaining to him from head teachers of public schools.