Ministers back down on campus reforms: Climbdown on funding follows opposition from Tory peers. Fran Abrams reports

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The Independent Online
MINISTERS have abandoned plans to reform student unions and to withdraw public funding from hundreds of campus societies, it was disclosed last night.

The climbdown over the Education Bill, details of which were leaked to the Independent last week, was made in the face of opposition from Conservatives in the House of Lords. However, the Government still faces defeat over separate plans to reform teacher training when the Bill reaches its Committee Stage next month.

The reforms would have starved the National Union of Students - which ministers described as the last closed shop in Britain - of cash, but would also have deprived student newspapers, entertainments and clubs of funds.

Under an amendment to the Bill, tabled last night, universities will now be responsible for ensuring that student unions operate in a fair and democratic manner. Individual students will have the right to opt out of union membership, but if they do so they will lose the right to vote in campus elections. They will still be able to use union bars and facilities, but will not be able to recover union fees, which are paid by the university in a block grant.

Unions will have to hold secret ballots in order to affiliate to outside bodies such as NUS, and decisions will have to be reviewed annually. However, with each union affiliating to about 70 sporting bodies, this is unlikely to be enforced.

Student unions will have to have a written constitution, approved by the university's governing body and reviewed every five years.

Announcing the retreat last night, Baroness Blatch, Minister of State for Education, said the Government had taken into account the issues raised during the Second Reading, before Christmas, when 31 peers spoke against it and only two for. 'The Government's intention is to secure democracy, accountability and choice in a way that does not inhibit the important extra-curricular activities of students,' she said.

Lorna Fitzsimons, president of NUS, said: 'We welcome this wave of common sense. Their revised legislation incorporates our own original ideas for clarifying the rights and responsibilities of student unions and NUS.'

However, there were warnings that proposals in the Bill to set up a teacher training agency to transfer more responsibility for training to schools, could prove equally controversial. Some Tory peers are now expected to join the Opposition to fight what remains of the Bill.

Blackpool and The Fylde College, which employs 330 full-time and 542 part-time lecturers, yesterday won a High Court injunction to prevent the lecturers' union calling a one-day strike. The National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education plans a national action next Tuesday over the introduction of flexible contracts of employment. Mr Justice Morison held that the strike would be unlawful because the union had not 'described' the employees who were to be balloted on action or those who would be called out on strike so that the employer could readily ascertain who they were.

The union claimed it could not be required to name its members. It was granted a stay on the injunction until today - provided that it could begin an appeal by today.