Universities drop campaign for £5,000 fees amid backbench pressure

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The Independent Online

Britiain's elite universities are abandoning plans to lobby for the introduction of a £5,000-a-year top-up fee.

Leaders of the Russell Group, representing the top 20 research-intensive universities, have admitted they have no chance of persuading ministers to increasethe proposed £3,000 fee because of the fierce opposition to that scheme from backbench Labour MPs.

Sir Michael Stirling, the chairman of the Russell Group and vice-chancellor of Birmingham University, said: "I think we have accepted the inevitable. We don't think it is right but it is a question of political realities."

But the group - which previously said that the £5,000 figure was necessary to make a market between universities - plans to campaign to persuade Charles Clarke, the Secretary of State for Education, to lift a ban on any increase from £3,000 a year until 2011. This year, the fees are £1,150.

Sir Michael also urged the Government to increase the proposed £1,000 maintenance grant for students, to subsidise students from poorer homes, rather than legislate to compel universities to provide bursaries from the income they receive from top-up fees.

Meanwhile, public opposition to the Government's scheme is growing, according to the latest opinion poll. The survey of 1,000 adults commissioned by the Association of University Teachers (AUT) revealed 84 per cent were against the idea - up from 80 per cent three months ago. Sally Hunt, the general secretary of the AUT, said: "The results of this poll show that the already massive opposition to top-up fees is continuing to grow.

"For the Government to press ahead with a policy that is opposed by more than four-fifths of the population would be an absolute travesty."

She added that the poll results would harden opposition among Labour backbenchers.

Proposals to allow universities to introduce top-up fees from 2006 will be confirmed in the Queen's Speech tomorrow.