Remember tuition fees? Jacked up to £9000? There was a bit of unpleasantness on the streets, I recall, after which Nick Clegg retrieved a shred of dignity with the announcement that, while £9000 per annum was the new limit, anything over £6000 had to be vetted first by the Lib Dem contribution to the story, OFFA (prop. Vince Cable, sort of), to ensure that the nasty old universities weren't profiteering.
That was then. It now appears that the funding situation instituted by the accompanying massive cuts to the HE budget is so bad that nearly everyone will be forced to charge over £6000 a year and what will presumably now happen is that the government will quietly accede to this and cross their fingers to avoid the embarrassment, or try and save Nick's principles from further erosion by picking a fight with some unglamorous institution (the post-1992 universities are mentioned) or other to try and prove the point.
The TES, increasingly militant, has the story:
Having done their own sums, however, many universities have concluded that they will have to set fees well above £6,000 just to break even. Politically, the government cannot let that happen, so ministers are now pulling out all the stops. A desperate government now seems to be throwing everything but the kitchen sink at universities. Last week, in an apparent challenge to autonomy, it threatened to change legislation to prevent universities' charges clustering around the upper limit.
If true, and with due regard for bias, they appear to be resorting to confrontation only a few months after trying deal-making:
David Willetts has warned that there will be more cuts to higher education if too many universities opt to charge maximum tuition fees. Fees in England are set to rise to a maximum of £9,000 from next year. The government wants most universities to pitch their fees lower - because it faces costs from supporting students' loans.
I'm sure that'll end well - presumably if the institutions cut their fees, the government will find more money? That would be logical, Mr. Willetts?
On a related note here's a very interesting comment on the TES article, which is worth keeping an eye on:
Unless the average fee charged is below around £7,000-7,500, this method of funding universities costs more during this parliament (about £5bn more based on the £9,000 average) and, due to the repayment caveats, may never actually break even
This is presumably what Willetts is getting at: the government may not save any money (tuition fees being up front and paid back later, as Mr. Clegg keeps saying) because some people won't repay them, due to not getting a job, dying, vanishing, emigrating etc. Two out of those three are looking like good options for anyone graduating in the near future, I must say. You can see why they're desperate to blackmail Britain's universities into not dropping the £9000 bomb across the board.