Dearing inquiry chief revises opinion and endorses university top-up fees

Lord Dearing, who headed the most authoritative inquiry for decades into university finances, came out in favour of the Government's proposals for top-up fees yesterday.

But, in an interview with The Independent, he qualified his enthusiasm with a demand that accommodation grants be increased from the £1,000 a year planned by ministers.

Lord Dearing was speaking as Charles Clarke, the Secretary of State for Education, launched an offensive to persuade Labour rebels to back the proposals.

Mr Clarke told MPs at a private meeting in the Commons that a graduate tax was not a realistic alternative. It would mean all students paying 3p in the pound extra income tax for at least 25 years making it much more expensive than top-up fees.

An opinion poll also showed most voters already support variable top-up fees repayable after graduation. Fifty-five per cent (and 64 per cent of Labour voters) believed them fair, compared to 42 per cent who found them unfair, a Populus poll for The Times found.

Speaking for the first time about the proposals in the Queen's Speech, Lord Dearing said he thought it, "right for the Government to invite students after graduation to make a contribution," but criticised ministers for limiting accommodation grants to £1,000 a year.

He cited the example of new education maintenance allowances, due to be introduced nationally next September, of up to £1,500 a year to persuade hard-up youngsters to stay in school after the age of 16. "That's a great move," he said. "However, I would like to see the £1,500 continued throughout a student's university years."

Lord Dearing said he hoped universities would not rush to introduce charges of £3,000 a year for all courses,but he thought the figure was about the right upper limit. Under the legislation, they will be free to do so from 2006 if they can convince a government regulator they are encouraging more working class students to attend.

Lord Dearing's inquiry was set up with all-party support just before the 1997 general election. It recommended that all students should pay £1,000 a year - but urged ministers to keep maintenance grants and dismissed the idea of top-up fees.

On coming into office, Labour backed the proposal to charge fees - but scrapped maintenance grants.

In his speech to MPs, Mr Clarke said many of the "fairnesses" of the graduate tax system were included in his top-up fees proposals. But rebels reaffirmed their opposition. One said: "It is a difference over policy."

Robin Cook, the former foreign secretary, urged the Prime Minister not to put such a "deeply divisive" issue to a confidence vote.

He told a luncheon in Glasgow: "I would say to Tony Blair there is nothing dishonourable in canvassing opinion and then discovering it is against you."

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