Rebel leaders stand firm as Clarke prepares to offer 'sweeteners' on university top-up fees

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The leader of the Labour revolt against university top-up fees said yesterday that he would vote against the Government for the first time in 20 years as an MP, despite renewed Government promises to lessen the impact on poorer students.

Nick Brown, the former chief whip, and other Labour critics of the contentious plans stood firm, dismissing suggestions that opposition to the scheme was softening.

Ministers face a struggle to avert a defeat on the issue and, when the Commons returns today, Charles Clarke, the Secretary of State for Education, will try again to win round critics of the scheme to allow universities to charge tuition fees of up to £3,000.

Opponents will be offered "sweeteners" in the Higher Education Bill, expected to be published on Thursday, Mr Clarke's aides said. But no compromise would be made on allowing institutions to levy varying tuition rates.

Mr Brown said his "bottom-line" remained the issue of variable fees, as they would discourage students from poorer families from applying to the most prestigious universities.

He told BBC 1's Breakfast with Frost: "I've been a Labour MP for 20 years now, and I've never voted against the parliamentary party leadership and I don't want to do so now."

But, he added: "The Government's proposal will introduce a market place into higher education and the ability to pay will count for more than academic ability."

Anne Campbell, Labour MP for Cambridge, said: "What we're worried about is diversity being established in universities, where bright students from lower-income backgrounds go to the ex-polytechnics - the cheaper universities - and elite universities become even more polarised towards middle-class students."

A total of 159 Labour MPs have signed a Commons motion condemning top-up fees. One, James Plaskitt, the MP for Warwick and Leamington, told BBC Radio 4 that with "more flexibility and movement" many of the critics' reservations would be met.