'We blundered' - minister admits that Labour made mistakes on tuition fees

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The Independent Online

"What we got wrong in 1998 was firstly asking students to pay tuition fees before they finished university and secondly scrapping student grants," he said.

The decisions may have harmed the Government's drive to woo more students from poorer backgrounds into universities, he acknowledged.

They are the starkest admissions so far that ministers - led by the then education secretary, David Blunkett - got student finance reforms wrong.

One of Labour's first tasks on taking office in 1997 was to respond to Lord Dearing's inquiry into student finance - set up under the previous Conservative government with all-party support.

Labour backed its call for tuition fees (of £1,100 a year) but overruled its recommendation that the student maintenance grant should be kept.

Mr Rammell conceded that the decisions could have had an adverse impact on one of the Government's main aims - a £300m drive to attract more youngsters from deprived backgrounds into higher education. "There hasn't been a reduction in the number of students but it hasn't gone up as much as we would wish," he said.

The latest figures from the Higher Education Funding Council for England show that, last year, 13.9 per cent of students were recruited from neighbourhoods with a history of low participation at university - up 0.6 per cent.

The Higher Education minister was speaking at the launch of a campaign to promote the new financial package available to students who opt to go to university next year - the first year of the controversial top-up fees regime when universities will be able to charge up to £3,000 a year in student fees.

"We make no bones about it - the package is redistributive," he said. All students whose parents income is less than £17,500 will be entitled to a full student grant of £2,700 a year. In addition, universities will have to give them a bursary of at least £300 a year.

Some are planning much more generous aid with Cambridge University offering an extra £3,000 a year to those who qualify.

In addition, all students whose parents earn less than £37,425 will be entitled to a proportion of the grant. No student will have to start paying back their fees until they have graduated and are earning £15,000 a year. On the average new graduate's salary of £18,000 a year, a youngster will have to repay at the rate of £5.19 a week.

"Many of them would spend more than that on CDs," said Mr Rammell. "The new system is much better than the existing one but we need to get the changes across to prospective students."

However, he warned that some students might be put off applying to university because of the controversy over top-up fees.

"There is not enough awareness of this [the package]," he said. "There is a danger that the controversy that's surrounded the introduction of variable fees means that the message doesn't get across - particularly to the students that really need the help."

Figures last month which showed the percentage of recruits to university from state schools had gone down last year - from 87.2 per cent to 86.8 per cent - did not worry him, he said. "The momentum is in the right direction. Over five years, the numbers have gone up from 176,000 to 209,000."

He ruled out urging the Office for Fair Access, the new quango overseeing university admissions, to use its powers to withdraw permission for charging of top-up fees from institutions which failed to widen participation.

"If you talk to university admissions staff, they are all well aware of the need to widen participation and trying their hardest," he said.

From today, television radio, newspapers and magazines adverts will alert students to the Government's support package.

Meanwhile, Lord Patten, the Chancellor of Oxford University, claimed yesterday that Britain's universities got "damn all help from the Government".

Lord Patten told GMTV that the Chancellor, Gordon Brown, appeared to be suggesting that great universities "lower their standards to cope with problems in secondary schools."