Poorest students exempt from fees

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The Independent Online

The poorest students will be exempted from university top-up fees, Charles Clarke promised yesterday.

The Secretary of State for Education raised the prospect of a zero fee for students from families with low incomes to defuse unease among MPs and the Labour Party grassroots over the plan to charge differential fees.

He told The Sunday Telegraph: "The deepest concern is about the disincentive for people from low-income families going to universities which are charging the highest fees."

The income threshold for exemptions has not yet been decided, but the Government is focused on ensuring top-up fees do not become a further barrier to poorer students taking up university places.

There are also plans for universities to make good a shortfall in fees in the form of bursaries for students from families that could not afford the full £3,000.

The move is part of a package aimed at widening access ­ a precursor to meeting the Government's pledge to get half of all young people into higher education by 2010.

A government task force headed by Professor Steven Schwartz, vice-chancellor of Brunel University, will announce plans on Tuesday to offer a grades deal to pupils from failing and disadvantaged schools in which they would be offered places at universities on the basis of lower A-level grades.

The government's adviser on university admissions has drawn up the proposals to counter unfairness in the system where bright pupils do not get to university because they are held back by difficult home lives or just poor educational standards at struggling schools.

Professor Schwartz will also outline plans to allow children as young as 11 and 12 to sit IQ-style tests as part of a bid to encourage the brightest working-class pupils to opt for university.

Sir Cyril Taylor, credited with persuading Tony Blair to set up specialist secondary schools, backs the move and believes it is essential if ministers are to fulfil their aim of widening participation in higher education.

The group headed by Professor Schwartz will also on Tuesday float the idea of using American Scholastic Aptitude Tests alongside A-levels to determine university admissions in the light of the plethora of candidates gaining at least three grade A passes.

Sir Peter Lampl, the millionaire philanthropist who set up the Sutton Trust to encourage more working-class students to apply to top universities, is negotiating a major trial of them on 50,000 children next September. The pupils would sit them at the start of the first term of their second year in the sixth form.