MPs offer Blair a compromise on top-up fees

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Moderate Labour MPs yesterday offered Tony Blair a lifeline over university top-up fees when they unveiled compromise proposals aimed at defusing a backbench rebellion.

Peter Bradley, the MP for the Wrekin, and Alan Whitehead, the MP for Southampton Test, presented a five-point plan designed to increase grants for poorer students and prevent universities charging more than their £3,000-a-year limit on fees.

The MPs called on the Government to launch an independent review after the first three years of top-up fees and to ensure that the cap on charges couldonly be lifted after an inquiry and a vote in both houses of Parliament.

They want ministers to set up a national body to administer the grants and to prevent universities which do not charge the maximum top-up fee from being penalised. They also proposed that the new access regulator set clear targets to help universities recruit more students from low-income backgrounds.

The MPs called on Charles Clarke, the Secretary of State for Education, to replace the Government's proposed £1,125-a-year discount on fees for poorer students with increased up-front maintenance grants.

The vice-chancellors of "new" universities say that although they have done the most to attract working-class students, they risk having the least amount of money to offer as bursaries, whereas elite universities, such as Oxford and Cambridge, would be able to afford to pay students thousands of pounds.

Mr Bradley said the proposals would quell fears that elite universities would be able to increase their fees. He said: "We accept that the Government will not negotiate over the principle of variability and there is no point in banging our heads against a brick wall if we want to reach agreement.

"My view is that this would radically transform the original proposals which the Government put forward and about which so many colleagues have so many concerns. The ball is now in the Government's court."

Senior government sources hinted at concessions to the MPs' proposals when the Bill is published tomorrow. Downing Street has already conceded that measures may be needed to stop "new "universities losing out.

The £3,000 cap on fees is not part of the Bill, but will be set through secondary legislation. A move to increase the cap above inflation would require a debate in both houses of Parliament if MPs objected.

The source said: "Peter and Alan have gone about this in a very, very constructive manner. They want a lot of things that cost a lot of money. We can't deliver absolutely everything they want but we are certainly keen to take the essence of what they want and build that into the proposals."

Mr Clarke held an "amicable" meeting with Nick Brown, the former Agriculture minister, who is an ally of the Chancellor and has been a central figure in the opposition to top-up fees.

Ministers remain confident that they can win support for their package of reforms, despite concern on the Labour back benches.