Students attacking the Government’s university funding plans don’t understand the proposals, Liberal Democrat MP John Hemming has insisted.
He said: “The anger has come down like a red mist over people’s eyes and concealed the truth from them.”
And far from destroying the Liberal Democrats as a political party, the current row will only make them stronger once the truth emerges, he said.
Mr Hemming claimed: “As people recognise it’s a better system, I think they will move away from being angry to being rational.
“People will look back on this and ask ‘what was all the fuss about’.”
The MP for Birmingham Yardley has been a lightning rod for criticism since he announced he was likely to vote in favour of increasing the university tuition fee cap from £3,290 a year to £9,000 a year.
Like all his Lib Dem colleagues in the Commons, he signed a pledge before the general election promising “to vote against any increase in fees in the next parliament and to pressure the government to introduce a fairer alternative”.
But unlike many of them, he didn’t seem embarrassed by the prospect of going back on the pledge. Instead, he defended the Government’s new system, claiming it was just the “fairer alternative” students were calling for.
When protesters occupied his office in Coventry Road, Birmingham, he warned they had made him even more likely to back the fees policy.
And now that the vote has been passed – despite a rebellion by 21 Lib Dem MPs who voted against the proposals – he is in no mood to apologise.
Mr Hemming said he was lobbying party leader Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister, and others including Business Secretary Vince Cable to turn the student funding system into a full-blown graduate tax.
At the heart of his argument is the fact that most graduates will never be asked to pay the full £27,000 that they might be charged for a three-year course.
In fact, even if universities charge less, around half of graduates will never have to pay the full amount.
As a result, what matters isn’t the debt they supposedly owe, it’s the amount they actually have to repay, according to Mr Hemming.
“If they get £22,000 they are paying £90 a year. Over 30 years that’s £2,700. Whatever the cost of the course – that doesn’t make any difference.
“That is less than on a cash basis they would pay under the current system.”
Indeed, under the current system a graduate earning £22,000 would be expected to repay £630 a year until they had paid off a debt of around £10,000, the maximum universities can currently charge for a three-year degree.
But it’s only graduates on relatively low salaries who will be better off. A report by the Institute of Fiscal Studies found that graduates earning around £30,000 or more would pay more under the new system.
For Mr Hemming, the problem with the Government’s proposals is mainly one of presentation.
Students won’t really have massive debts – but the policy is being presented as if they do, he said.
“You are not going to get the bailiffs in saying ‘we are going to take your telly because you haven’t paid’.”
He added: “This is 95 per cent of the way towards a capped graduate tax.
“The five per cent extra that needs to happen doesn’t actually effect what people pay, but it effects how they feel.
“And how people feel is really quite important, because if you feel you go to university and when you leave you pay a tax, at least if you earn a reasonable salary, you feel lot better than if you leave university with a debt of £40,000 or something. If you can get rid of the “D” word, it’s perceived differently.”
Mr Hemming said he had no regrets over warning that occupying his office would make him more likely to vote for a fees increase.
“They are trampling on people poorer than themselves. Basically, some of the protesters don’t care if they trample underfoot people who are quite vulnerable and need help.
“When they occupied my office, there were real cases that we couldn’t handle because they shut the office down. One was a lady who was not getting her benefits. They didn’t care that they were stopping somebody getting their benefits. I don’t mind them protesting to protect the interests of the upper middle class. They may not understand that that is what they were protecting.
“They had a right to protest. They don’t have a right to trample the vulnerable underneath their feet as they protest.”
But far from destroying the Liberal Democrats as a party, as some have predicted, the fees debate could eventually boost their popularity, he said.
“I think that if we manage to scrap debt I think we will bounce back to a stronger position than we have been at, because it will be recognised that we have actually delivered.”