Clarke offers concession to rebels over grants for poor students

Poorer students could receive more financial support from the taxpayer in the future, the Government indicated yesterday as the Department of Education and Skills tried to mollify potential Labour rebels.

The poorest students currently have all £1,100 of their fees paid by the taxpayer but the DfES suggested this level could be increased after the introduction of top-up fees which will cost students up to £3,000 a year from 2006.

The Bill to introduce top-up fees, due to be published later this year, looks set to have a stormy passage through Parliament. More than 100 Labour MPs have signed early-day motions opposing the plans.

Charles Clarke, the Secretary of State for Education said that while he remained, "committed to a system of variable fee contributions we will continue to keep under review the appropriate level and means of providing student support to those from disadvantaged backgrounds".

He said he had altered some of the White Paper proposals in response to criticism. "There will always be disagreements about the best ways of moving forward," he said. "But I want to make clear that I welcome the debate and I am proposing some changes in direct response to it."

Earlier this month ministers offered their first major concession in an attempt to win over potential Labour rebels by announcing more generous maintenance grant arrangements for poorer students.

Students from families earning up to £15,200 will now be eligible for the maximum grant of £1,000 per year while students from families with an income up to £21,185 will be eligible for smaller maintenance grants. The statement suggests that the poorest students could receive more generous support in the future.

The DfES report said: "We will consider whether we could target these resources better, for example in remitting graduate fee contributions above the £1,100 level, perhaps by building schemes that work in partnership with universities' own bursary schemes".

Professor Roderick Floud, president of Universities UK which represents university vice-chancellors, said: "The DfES's statements are essentially a restatement of the Government's position, outlined in the White Paper. We see little evidence of responsiveness."