Forget 'tsars', bring back grants, MPs tell Clarke

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The Independent Online

Charles Clarke, the Education Secretary, is being urged by MPs to offer grants of up to £5,000 a year for poorer students.

The call is made by the Labour-dominated Commons Education Select Committee in a highly critical report, published today, on the Government's higher education White Paper. Their demand for the massive increase in grants is likely to be the trade-off to avoid a rebellion by backbench Labour MPs over top-up fees of up to £3,000.

Last night, Mr Clarke rejected a proposal by the MPs that the grant could be paid for by reducing interest-rate subsidies for student loans. The Government is planning to bring back grants of just £1,000 a year for students from poorer backgrounds in its White Paper.

Today's committee report dismisses the figure, saying: "It is unlikely that it will provide much incentive to students from poorer backgrounds, given that the amount payable is only £1,000.

"We are clear that what the Government needs to do is to target expenditure more effectively on those that need it. Too many students have to work long hours during term time to make ends meet because the amount provided for in maintenance is not sufficient."

Mr Clarke said he was willing to look at exempting poor students from the cost of top-up fees. At present, they are only exempt from the £1,100 flat-rate tuition fee. But he added: "Charging a higher interest on student loans would be regressive."

On top-up fees, the MPs say the plan is of "great significance" for university finances but argue that the figure may have to rise to £5,000 if it is to lead to universities charging differential fees.

The MPs have urged ministers to scrap plans for an "access tsar". They say it is "unnecessary" and "appears to be driven by political considerations rather having a practical purpose".