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Tuition fee row could end up in court as DUP sides with Labour

The Democratic Unionist Party has said it will vote with Labour against the rise in university tuition fees. If the government loses the vote but refuses to acknowledge the outcome, it could be headed for the courts.

Universities in England are anxiously awaiting the result of a vote in the House of Commons on the evening of 13 September, in which Labour hopes to block the rise in tuition fees just days before the start of the academic year.

The Labour education team has laid a motion seeking to annul the fee increase announced by Jo Johnson, universities and science minister, in the final days of the last parliament.

A DUP source confirmed that the party’s MPs would vote to support the Labour motion. The party believes that the vote is non-binding on the government and therefore falls outside of the confidence-and-supply agreement the DUP has with the Conservatives.

This makes it much more likely that the government could lose the vote, meaning the rise in tuition fees for 2017 could yet end up in the courts.

Johnson used a statutory instrument to announce the rise and so far the government has avoided a vote in parliament. However secondary legislation can be revoked by a vote in parliament within a 40-day limit.

As HE reported on 12 September, Commons officials have confirmed that Labour moved a motion to revoke the fees rise within the necessary period but the government refused a vote. Labour is furious that the government is attempting to thwart the conventions of the parliament and has now raised a motion within opposition time in order to force through a vote.

HE understands that opponents of the fee increase are prepared to mount a legal challenge against the government, should it lose the vote but refuse to act upon it. A Labour Party spokesperson said: “It would be unthinkable for the House of Commons to pass such a clear resolution and for the government not to act on the clear will of the house.”

It is very rare for a sitting government to be defeated on an opposition motion. But when they do, as in 2009 when Gordon Brown’s government lost a vote on the right of former Gurkhas to settle in the UK, a change in the law is inevitable. Precedent shows that under such circumstances, a government will accept changes in policy rather than face defeat in the courts.

However universities are already planning on the basis of the tuition fee rise, which is attached to participation in the Teaching Excellence Framework. The prospect of uncertainty over the future of the TEF and fees so close to the start of the academic year could lead to chaos across higher education.

A spokesperson for the vice-chancellors’ group Universities UK said, “The inflationary adjustment to the fee cap in England, as confirmed by the government in 2015, is essential to allow universities to continue to deliver a high quality learning experience for students.". UUK has called on the government to review interest rates for low and middle-income graduates.