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June 10, 2010

Coalition contortions

Today, we got our first indication of how the coalition government, or at least the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills, will deal with the tricky issues on which the Lib Dem and Conservative partners disagree.

Universities minister David Willetts gave a speech at Oxford Brookes University this afternoon on the funding of higher education, following his widely reported remarks to The Guardian that the cost of so many students on degree courses were a "burden on the taxpayer", widely interpreted as hint that tuition fees were likely to rise. Fees are, of course, one of the major sources of conflict between the two coalition partners, with the Lib Dems securing the right to abstain from any vote on raising them.

So when we asked to see the text of Willetts' speech, BIS had to go through some painful contortions to demonstrate that Willetts' boss Vince Cable was not a party to any of the sentiments expressed. First, we were told that it was a "political" speech, so the BIS press office could not provide it and would have to pass our request on to Willetts' special adviser Nick Hillman (this despite the fact that it was the BIS press office that alerted us to the speech, and invited us to attend). Then, when the text arrived, the name at the top was "the Rt Hon David Willetts MP"—no mention of his ministerial job. And the BIS press release on the event does not include the full text or a video of the speech as it would for a "non-political" speech.

The speech itself is fairly tame (Download a copy of it here)—no repeat of the "burden" comment—generally criticizing the existing fees regime but not really suggesting what a future one might look like. But it is an indication of how sensitive the issue is within the coalition that these efforts are made to keep some distance between the two partners, even within the same department.

The real fun, though, will start when the Browne review reports this autumn.

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