Milburn: fees will entrench class divide

The Government's social mobility watchdog has warned that the controversy over its hike in university tuition fees to £9,000 a year could derail its drive to close the "life chances gap" between the poor and better-off.

Alan Milburn, the former Labour Cabinet minister who is the Coalition's independent reviewer of social mobility, said fears of piling up huge debts could deter thousands of students from modest backgrounds from going into higher education – particularly if their own parents did not go to university.

He said many people did not realise that fees would not be payable upfront or that loans would not be repaid until someone earned £21,000 a year.

In his first interview about his role, Mr Milburn told The Independent: "The Government needs to correct this impression if bright kids from less well-off backgrounds are not to be deterred from going to university. The Government and universities will have to run a major public information campaign to tell parents and students who is entitled to what. They cannot just assume people will know. They have got to get their finger out."

He has advised ministers to run high-profile television commercials explaining the new fees system, but government advertising has virtually ground to a halt as part of public spending cuts.

He also expressed concern at reports that many children's centres will close. "Sure Start is a very important cornerstone of social mobility policy," he said. "It is important that it is given the resources it needs to do its job."

The former Health Secretary will focus closely on university access, Sure Start, welfare and the "who you know" culture in the professions before issuing his first annual report in a year's time.

Tomorrow the Government's strategy on social mobility and child poverty will be launched by Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister, who has made improving life chances his top policy priority. He will announce an annual "report card" under which progress will be measured at seven key stages of people's life – ranging from birth weight to success in the job market by age 30.

Mr Milburn's comments will embarrass Mr Clegg, who has faced the brunt of the criticism for the trebling of tuition fees after the Lib Dems pledged to abolish them at last year's election.

He welcomed Mr Clegg's "bold" decisions to make social mobility his "core purpose" and to measure progress at the "make-or-break" stages, saying: "People can't get a one-off opportunity in life. It must be a series of opportunities."

But Mr Milburn will not pull his punches if the Government's rhetoric is not matched by the right policies. "I will act as judge, jury and, if necessary, executioner," he said.

"Warm words are one thing; it is not intentions that count, it is action. Improving social mobility is a long-term challenge. Progress is glacial. It is like pushing a boulder uphill. It had been rolling downhill at speed over many decades. Labour stopped it but did not push it up the hill."

Mr Milburn also fired a shot across Labour's bows, warning that Ed Miliband must spell out what the party is for as well as what is against, and define more clearly where Labour would cut public spending. "It is early days for Ed. I think he is perfectly aware that Labour has got to set out its stall. You can win your spurs by being a decent opposition but you don't win votes unless you are an alternative party of government," he said.

“When Labour is prepared to grasp the nettle of a radical, reforming agenda, it wins. It cannot say that change is too difficult. What Labour must not do is retreat into a comfort zone. Opposition is an uncomfortable place. It is a bloody difficult job being Leader of the Opposition.”