Clarke plans offensive to win over rebels on top-up fees

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Indy Politics

Charles Clarke will launch a new offensive on Monday to try to win over Labour MPs threatening to rebel against government plans to allow universities to charge top-up fees of £3,000 a year.

Ministers were heartened yesterday by an ICM poll suggesting that proposals to allow universities to set their own fees up to a ceiling of £3,000 were more popular than alternatives put forward by the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. But backbench unease over the plans continued to grow and the number of Labour MPs who have signed a motion expressing concern at the plans rose to 157.

Mr Clarke plans to woo backbenchers with a series of six meetings aimed at quelling concerns about the main parts of the top-up fees proposals.

The Education Secretary will hold meetings for backbenchers on Monday and Tuesday focusing on why ministers have not opted for a graduate tax. Two further meetings the following week will cover arguments against a flat-rate fee for university tuition. The final pair of sessions will address arguments about the fear of debt.

Policy papers being drawn up by the Department for Education and Skills give detailed costings for each set of proposals. Ministers hope the meetings, which will be addressed by Mr Clarke and Alan Johnson, the Higher Education minister, will win over significant numbers of rebels.

The Government was anxious to play down reports of a cabinet rift over top-up fees. Home Secretary David Blunkett, who was previously opposed to top-up fees, told Radio 4's Any Questions programme that he supported the new proposals.

Mr Blunkett said more funding was needed for universities. "If we did not raise it in this way we would have to displace investment in other critical parts of the public services," he said.

A poll in London's Evening Standard showed 40 per cent of people backed proposals for fees of up to £3,000. Twenty-four per cent backed a rise in income tax to fund expansion in higher education, while 17 per cent supported Tory plans to limit university expansion.

Tony Blair repeated his "complete determination" to press ahead with the plans but stopped short of claiming unanimous cabinet backing.

He said: "I believe that the more the public hears the argument about university finance the more they realise the fairest way to widen access, to preserve British universities as a great national asset is to get rid of up-front fees and have the graduate make a fair repayment once they graduate and that is better than putting up taxes for the whole of the population which is unfair."

Top up or not?

Professor Ted Wragg, emeritus professor of education at Exeter University

Universities are massively underfunded. I'm against a graduate tax because it is discriminatory and against top-up fees because I'm appalled by the thought of young people getting into massive debt. If people are going to obtain massive financial benefits through going to university then they will pay through the taxation system we already have

Joan Bakewell, broadcaster

Clearly, universities are underfunded. Someone's got to pay but we're not in sight of the answer. The differential fees are seriously bad news and if we encourage people to get cavalier about debt then it will be a big problem for the country. There are good elements in this. I like people paying after graduation, but Blair should listen and modify his proposal

Professor Mike Thorne, vice-chancellor of the University of East London

Upfront fees deter students from poorer backgrounds and the Government is right to change to a repayment system. But the proposals for variable fees, coupled to a bursary 'lottery', under which universities would allocate one-third of fee income to bursaries, would favour universities that charge the highest fees and have the fewest hard-up students

Sir Peter Lampl, millionaire chairman of the Sutton Trust, a charity that helps more working-class students to go to top universities

The difference in cost for the richest and poorest to attend university is only £2,000 a year, and the £3,000 top-up is inadequate for university funding. Ministers should give proper grants for low-income students. Then raise the £3,000 maximum and charge a real interest rate on subsidised loans to support poor students

Margaret Morrissey, spokeswoman for the National Confederation of Parent Teacher Associations

We should reduce spending onbureaucracy at government level and put that money into universities. It's got to be better than charging the students - that's not on. Also, are we trying to send too many students to university who don't want to go? I feel some students who are already there would get a degree of benefit from an apprenticeship instead

Dr David Starkey, historian

Universities are grotesquely underfunded. I think the argument against top-up fees is answerable, but Blair's package is worse than a disease. He seems to have forgotten that the real cost of a university education is between £10,000 and £15,000. What universities need is their freedom to raise money, spend money and recruit the best students and teachers.

Diana Green, vice-chancellor of Sheffield Hallam University

Universities are underfunded but Labour says there is no alternative to top-up fees. Part-time, postgraduate and overseas students pay variable fees so that principle is established. There is an argument for easing financial pressure on undergraduates by raising the threshold for repayments and expanding support through grants or bursaries

Professor Alan Smithers, director of the Centre of Education and Employment Research at the University of Liverpool

Universities are massively underfunded. The key is to allow universities to price their own courses. I welcome what the Government is doing as a first step. The main part of funding will come from the taxpayer but I'd also expect greater contributions from students once they've graduated

Gareth Matthewson, headteacher of Whitchurch High School in Cardiff and president of the National Association of Head Teachers

Additional money should come from the taxpayer but some contribution from the student is inevitable. I wouldn't want to see money that should go to children in the early years of their education - which doesn't receive enough resources - diverted into higher education

Beryl Bainbridge, author

I suppose they do need funding. I don't particularly see why students should pay. We should do the same as before. I don't see why we need all these students on courses like hairdressing. It's fine for people who've got the exams, but I can't think why everyone should go. The world is unequal: some do well at school, some don't

Additional research by Nick Jackson