Cambridge bursary could pave way for top-up fees

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Cambridge University is to offer bursaries to poor students in a move that could prepare the way for it to introduce top-up fees.

The university will launch proposals next week to give more financial support to students from poor backgrounds, which could mean subsidies of up to £4,000 a year for the least well-off.

Under the Government's plans for higher education funding, universities will be allowed to charge differential fees of up to £3,000 a year from 2006. But only institutions that can demonstrate that they do enough to support poor students, such as through bursary schemes, will be allowed to increase their fees from the current £1,125 a year.

Ben Brinded, president of Cambridge University Students' Union, said the university would formally announce the scheme next week.

Mr Brinded said that, under the Cambridge University scheme, drawn up in consultation with Cambridge University Students' Union, £4,000 a year would be available to all students from families with incomes of less than £15,200.

He said the scheme would cost around £8m a year.

Critics of top-up fees fear that differential charges will create a two-tier system in which poorer students will shy away from elite universities such as Oxford and Cambridge in favour of cheaper options.

They also warn that poorer graduates will be forced to head for well-paid jobs in an effort to pay off their debts. They argue that this will stop many young people from pursuing careers in less-well-paid sectors, such as academic research and charity work.

Mr Brinded said the bursary scheme was good, but should not be used as a justification for top-up fees. "I am concerned that Charles Clarke will try to make political capital out of this," he said.

"The scheme is a good bursary scheme. But top-up fees are still wrong, and this scheme is only sticking plaster. We are convinced that top-up fees will discourage students from poor backgrounds from applying to universities such as Cambridge. We think a lot of students whose families earn between £15,000 and around £25,000 will be caught in a poverty trap."

A spokeswoman for Cambridge University said details of the scheme would be announced on Thursday, and she could not comment on the details of the scheme.