Clarke: top-up fees defeat would stop return of grants

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Indy Politics

Charles Clarke raised the stakes over university top-up fees yesterday by warning that a government defeat on the Higher Education Bill could kill off hopes of bringing back grants for poorer students.

The Secretary of State for Education said ministers would withdraw the legislation if the Government was defeated in the Commons vote tomorrow.

He said divisions within the Labour party would then be so severe it would be impossible to return to the legislation before the next general election - and even warned that a third-term Labour government might struggle to agree a package to rescue the ailing universities.

"It would mean no grants worth £2,700, no extra £1bn for universities, no abolition of up-front tuition fees [currently £1,125 a year]," he said.

Universities say they need an extra £7bn to maintain standards if they are to meet the Government's target of getting 50 per cent of youngsters into higher education by the end of the decade.

Plans to set up a new admissions body aimed at encouraging universities to admit more working-class students would also be scuppered, Mr Clarke said. "If the amendment outlawing top-up fees was carried, we would withdraw this Bill and we'd simply have to start again," he said.

Mr Clarke also stoked up the war of words between ministers and Labour rebels by warning that their amendment would leave universities free to charge "sky-high" fees - a claim denied by Dr Ian Gibson, Mr Clarke's fellow Norwich MP and a leading top-up rebel. Mr Clarke said the amendment would also remove clauses forbidding universities from charging more than a maximum £3,000 a year in top-up fees. This could lead to "the figures of £10,000 a year thrown about or even more" being charged, he said.

However, Dr Gibson said he had sent an e-mail to all Labour MPs confirming that the ceiling on fees - agreed as a result of the 1998 Higher Education Act - would remain in force.

Mr Clarke accused Dr Gibson of "colluding" with the Conservatives to defeat the Government. He said he had been told by a Labour MP that Conservatives were "cock-a-hoop and with a spring in their step" because they had "managed to pull the wool over the eyes of Labour rebels" over the effect of the amendment.

Dr Gibson said tomorrow's vote on tuition fees - the third and final reading of the Bill - was "too close to call", raising the prospect of a humiliating defeat for Tony Blair, despite his Commons majority of more than 160. Downing Street also said the result would be "tight". The Bill passed its second reading by only five votes in January.

Meanwhile, a group of university vice-chancellors is starting a last-ditch attempt to defeat top-up fees. Leaders of about 20 former polytechnics and higher education institutes are lobbying MPs to vote for Dr Gibson's amendment to the Bill. Among those backing the amendment are Southampton Institute, the University of Wolverhampton, Coventry University, Bournemouth University and the University of Central Lancashire. Professor Gillian Slater, the vice-chancellor of Bournemouth University, said top-up fees would create a two-tier university system.

Under the Bill's proposals, universities would be allowed to charge a maximum top-up fee of £3,000 a year from 2006, students would be exempt from paying the current up-front fees of £1,125 a year and grants would be introduced for the poorest students - of up to £2,700 a year.