Clarke makes final plea to MPs over top-up fees

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Charles Clarke appealed yesterday to rebel Labour MPs not to wreck the Government's plans for university top-up fees in a Commons vote today.

Charles Clarke appealed yesterday to rebel Labour MPs not to wreck the Government's plans for university top-up fees in a Commons vote today.

The Secretary of State for Education pleaded with wavering backbenchers at a special meeting of Labour MPs amid concern in the Government's ranks that it could suffer a humiliating defeat on the Higher Education Bill.

Mr Clarke said that a rebel amendment would not block variable tuition fees as its supporters intend but would lift the ceiling on fees and could send them soaring to £15,000 a year.

The amendment, tabled by Ian Gibson, Labour MP for Norwich North, aims to remove the most controversial elements of the flagship policy while retaining the reintroduction of maintenance grants and deferring the payment of fees until after graduation. It seeks to hold fees at their current flat-rate level of £1,125 a year.

Mr Clarke said the proposal would not preserve the status quo but would open the door to "sky-high fees across the university sector", which the Government would have no power to prevent. "What I fail to understand is how Labour colleagues, who have expressed reservations about a capped fee of up to £3,000, could even consider backing an amendment which opens the door to fees of £5,000, £10,000 or even £15,000." He said the wording of the amendment would not freeze fees but open a free-for-all where universities could charge what they want.

Mr Clarke said: "This Bill represents a once-in-a-generation chance to put universities on a firm financial footing, get rid of unfair upfront fees so that university is free once again for students and their parents while they are studying, create a fairer repayment system for all graduates and restore grants to the poorest students at £2,700 per year."

Government whips are working hard to persuade Labour MPs to oppose the amendment, which will be taken at the Bill's report stage. They fear that it may win approval because several MPs may abstain with the intention of voting for the Bill at its third reading stage immediately afterwards. "That could be too late; the Bill may be sunk by then," said a government source.

Downing Street signalled that ministers were prepared to withdraw the whole Bill if the amendment is passed, saying it was not a "pick-and-mix" measure. Tony Blair's official spokesman said: "We are not complacent about the vote. The Government collectively is working hard to carry the Bill."

When the Bill went before the Commons in January, 72 Labour MPs voted against the Government, slashing Mr Blair's majority of 161 to just five in the largest backbench rebellion on domestic policy since he became Prime Minister. The Tories and Liberal Democrats also oppose the plans.

Student leaders from the United States, Australia, Canada and New Zealand, which have all had university fees for some years, urged England not to go down the same route. Top-up fees would price many poor students out of the best universities, they warned.

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