Despite it being the best policy, honesty often gets punished in British politics. So it is with David Willetts’ sorta admission that tuition fees could rise in future. The universities minister was expressing a simple truth: that, with the prospect of a gap in funding for universities, some people may be stung in their pocketbooks. But it’s unlikely to endear him, or the Conservatives, to those younger voters who already veer towards Labour.

Should tuition fees be hiked above the current £9,000 limit? First, a few words about that funding gap. The News Statesman’s George Eaton has already explained it with typical clarity, but it’s worth going over again because it underlies Willetts’ thinking – and what could be a vicious scrap at the next election.

Basically, when the current fees system was devised, Whitehall’s deskbound data-crunchers overestimated the number of graduates who would find well-paid work in this economy. They figured then that 28 per cent of student loans would effectively have to be written off, as young people struggled to find employment. But that figure has since risen, through 30 and 40 per cent, to its current 45 per cent. As the Guardian put it a few weeks ago:

“The hasty revision of departmental forecasts means that by 2042 about £90bn out of the overall £200bn in student loans will remain unpaid.”

£90 billion unpaid. That is, of course, a figure that could go down – these are such long-term forecasts that they’ll be subject to a million more revisions in future. But it still raises the prospect of ministers scrabbling around for more cash to keep professors in books and in musty jumpers. And where would that cash come from? Either from taxpayers or from the graduates themselves. As Willetts said, tuition fees could be raised.

What makes this even spicier is that fact that some Tories believe tuition fees should be raised, provided certain conditions are in place – and not just to fill that funding gap. In fact, last year, the Sunday Times quoted (£) a “senior government source” to this effect. Among their concerns, so far as I understand it, is the possibility that some grand old institutions could go fully private and simply charge what they like. They’d prefer the current system to operate more like a proper market, where rewards accumulate to those who provide a good service, than the perverse market we have now. As I wrote in a post on this very subject last year:

“Under the current system, many universities have huddled around the £9,000 limit. Those that occupy the lower reaches of the league tables – for example, the University of East London – can, and do, charge the same as those at the top. This isn’t a market, it’s a stitch-up. You’ll have to pay the same amount back, regardless of what job your degree helps you into.”

But this is easier for journalists to opine about than for politicians to campaign on. As it stands, we’ll probably have Labour promising a cut in tuition fees (which, don’t forget, is another way of saying “more money from the taxpayer”); the Lib Dems too terrified to say anything meaningful; and Willetts declining to rule out a tuition fee hike. And what will the minister’s honesty get him and his party? Excoriation, I suspect – but it’s still the best policy.