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Ministers reject university tuition fees plan

Ministers have ruled out proposals from university vice-chancellors that would require students to repay tuition fees.

Gillian Shephard, the Secretary of State for Education, made it clear yesterday that she expected university tuition fees would continue to be funded by the taxpayer.

The Prime Minister is understood to be firmly opposed to students repaying fees because he believes it would restrict access to higher education.

Mrs Shephard's comments came as vice-chancellors were discussing plans which would mean graduates leaving college would have debts of up to pounds 20,000 after a three-year course.

Their proposals being drawn up at their annual conference in Sheffield will be presented to the Dearing review of higher education appointed by the Government.

At present, students take out loans only for living costs. The vice-chancellors argue that universities are so short of funds that students should also be required to pay back the cost of tuition.

They want a scheme financed largely through banks under which both the cost of maintenance and that of a proportion of fees would be repaid after graduation through National Insurance Contributions.

Mrs Shephard said she did not expect any change in the way fees are paid. "Existing Government policy is that tuition fees are paid and students are given support in respect of grants and loans - the most generous in the Western industrialised countries - for their living costs.

"We will be putting our proposals to Dearing but I do not expect any change in that kind of structure."

The Dearing review, which has Labour's support, is due to report next June after the general election. Labour has said that it opposes any system requiring graduates to repay fees.

The review is also considering the big expansion of higher education. Vice-chancellors argue that funding for each student has fallen so sharply that standards are endangered.