Charles Clarke attempted to defeat Labour rebels over university top-up fees, insisting that plans to charge students up to £3,000 a year for degree courses were "the fairest way" to increase funding for higher education.
He defended plans to open up a market by allowing universities to set their own charges, while aides said they were negotiating with vice-chancellors to establish bursaries for the poorest students.
But he faced anger from some delegates, who won applause by arguing that the fees would deter working-class students.
Mr Clarke said: "Our proposals allow us to get universities the money which they need to expand and grow, and to ensure they do that fairly."
Tony Blair has been warned that he faces severe problems getting legislation on top-up fees through the Commons after more than 170 Labour backbenchers signed opposing parliamentary motions.
Critics fear the increases in fees will deter students from applying to university and warn that creating a market in higher education will lead to a two-tier system. But Mr Clarke said: "There are no easy options and we do need to make hard choices. But the reason why we have to make those hard choices is that it's not just the distribution of resources which is deeply unfair, it's the distribution of life chances."
He lambasted Conservative plans for a 20 per cent cut in university funding, saying: "The truth is the Tories believe that some can achieve and some cannot. They are the enemy of aspiration and the enemy of achievement."
Tim Cheetham, a delegate from Barnsley Central, won applause for attacking the proposals. He said: "I remember Neil Kinnock at this conference recalling that thanks to Labour he was the first person in a thousand generations to go to university. It now takes a generation to pay off student debt and how many more generations will be forced to ask. 'Can I afford to go to university?'
"If we continue to shift the burden of education funding to the students and their families it will serve as a barrier to higher education.
"I am committed to our 50 per cent target of students into higher education. I think it would rank alongside any achievement in our movement's history.
"But would our Labour ancestors really think we had achieved very much if that 50 per cent was still principally determined by the their economic background and not on their academic potential?"
Karim Palant, a student delegate, said: "We do not believe top-up fees are the answer to funding the Government's expansion of higher education."
But Cath Speight, of the party's national executive committee, said: "What is clear is all of us in the Labour movement want the same thing: more opportunities for more students. At present too few people from working-class backgrounds are going to university. How do we change that? The Tories are not the answer. They stand for fewer people going to university."
Keith Dibble, a delegate from the giant Amicus union, said: "After much thought I can support the Government's policies on top-up fees and student loans providing we have a system that gives real and genuine support to those on low incomes."
Paul Mackney, general secretary of the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education, said: "Charles Clarke ignored the unfairness of the prospect of debt. Most parents will discourage their children from accumulating debt but the prospect of owing £20,000 or more will deter lower income families, but not the wealthier.
"He ignored the unfairness of variable fees, which will channel the poorer student to cheaper courses and universities, while the wealthier can pursue their first choice."
Phil Willis, the Liberal Democrat spokesman on education, added: "Labour promised not to introduce top-up fees. Charles Clarke confirmed the Government's betrayal of students by breaking that promise."Reuse content