The Lib Dem leader said the move had been “by far the most painful” part of moving from opposition to government but insisted that the party had done “the best thing we could” given the “simple truth” was that both Labour and Conservatives were set on raising fees.
Addressing conference delegates in Birmingham this afternoon, Mr Clegg said: “Government has brought difficult decisions. Of course the most heart wrenching for me, for all of us, was on university funding.
“Like all of you, I saw the anger. I understand it, I felt it, I have learned from it and I know how much damage this has done to us as a party.
“[It has been] by far the most painful part of our transition from the easy promises of opposition to the invidious choices of government.”
He said the experience had taught him that despite working hard on the details of the policy, it made no difference “if the perception is wrong”.
“We failed to explain that there were no other easy options. And we have failed so far to show that the new system will be much, much better than people fear,” he said.
Mr Clegg also praised his deputy leader, Simon Hughes, who he said had been “busting a gut” as the government’s higher education access advocate despite having reservations about the policy when it was first proposed.
“Simon didn’t like the decision we made, and for reasons I respect. But rather than sitting back he has rolled up his sleeves and got on with making the new system work,” he said.