Charges needed to improve access, insists inquiry chief

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The man in charge of a government inquiry into university admissions has given his backing for top-up fees.

Professor Steven Schwartz, vice-chancellor of Brunel University, told The Independent that plans to let universities charge up to £3,000 for courses were essential to improve access for working-class students.

He said: "In my view, they're an absolute necessity." His words will encourage ministers as they seek to suppress a revolt by Labour MPs against the proposed legislation. The professor, whose task force on how to widen participation reports this month, warned that a defeat would remove the only mechanism for forcing elite universities to take more students from poorer backgrounds.

Under the proposals, an admissions body called the Office for Fair Access (Offa)will refuse permission to levy top-up fees to universities not making enough effort to attract working-class students.

Professor Schwartz said: "In my view, top-up fees are perfectly fair. There will be assistance to those people who come from deprived backgrounds." The £3,000 maximum was "probably right for a start", he said.

And he dismissed fears that differential fees would deter the less well off from prestigious universities. Evidence from abroad showed students were prepared to take out large loans to fund a better future, he said.