Clegg tries to defuse anger among students

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Indy Politics

Nick Clegg has pleaded with students to "listen and look" before they join today's protests over the Government's plans to allow universities to charge up to £9,000 a year.

The Liberal Democrat leader admitted the proposal was "not my party's policy" as he sought to justify his dramatic U-turn after pledging to phase out fees at the May general election. He said the Coalition's policy was fairer than the graduate tax favoured by the National Union of Students (NUS). He urged protesters: "Listen and look before you march and shout. Our plans will mean that many of the lowest income graduates will repay less than they do under the current system."

Giving the Hugo Young lecture in London last night, the Deputy Prime Minister claimed the Government's plans would make higher education "open to everyone" because universities that wanted to charge more than £6,000 a year would face "real sanctions" if they did not open their doors to the many. He admitted he was "angry" about the small number of children from poor backgrounds getting into top universities.

"Oxford and Cambridge take more students each year from just two schools – Eton and Westminster – than from among the 80,000 pupils who are eligible for free school meals.

"We have individual public schools sending more than that," he said. "In the last few years the number of poorer children making it to top universities has fallen. A young adult from an affluent background is now seven times more likely to go to university than one from a poor background.

"These are the things that make me angry: these are the facts that would make me take to the streets; these are the injustices that our policy will remedy." Mr Clegg branded the Labour leader Ed Miliband an "old progressive" for saying his party would keep the 50p rate of tax on earnings above £150,000 and regarding income as the only measure of poverty. He argued that the Liberal Democrats were the "new progressives", saying that improving access to services for poor families and social mobility mattered too.

More than 60 protests have been arranged by students across Britain today as part of a national campaign of disruption organisers have called "Day X". Constituency offices of Liberal Democrat MPs deemed to have broken their election pledge by backing an increase in fees are expected to be the focus of protests. Universities in most major cities will be affected. Security will be stepped up at the Liberal Democrat HQ in Westminster. But some activists have warned those heading to London to protest to stay away from the building as it will be heavily policed, following the Metropolitan Police's failure to maintain order during protests earlier this month.

Police are determined to be ready for the wave of direct action after the 10 November march, when protesters smashed windows at Conservative Party HQ. Officers have been working with the National Public Order Intelligence Unit to monitor the preparations being made for today's demonstrations.

The NUS has not officially backed the protests, but as many as 22,000 sixth formers and undergraduates are expected to take part. Senior members of the main lecturers' union, the UCU, are likely to participate.