Science students will escape top-up fees in drive to save unpopular courses

Thousands of science students will escape top-up fees, the Higher Education Minister declared yesterday.

Alan Johnson told MPs on the Commons education select committee that it was a "near racing certainty" that students opting for physics and chemistry courses would pay "nothing or next to nothing" in fees.

Those taking more popular subjects such as law and the arts would pay the top fee of £3,000 a year. This income would be transferred to subsidise science courses to attract more students.

Demand for science courses has plummeted. Next week the ruling council at King's College London will meet to consider drastic cuts to courses such as microbiology and environmental health and the closure of its chemistry department. Six universities have closed their chemistry departments in the past four years.

Mr Johnson said: "It is a near racing certainty that chemistry and physics - where they have high infrastructure costs - will charge nothing or next to nothing and cross-subsidise their students from law or popular courses like that.I think that's going to happen."

He was backed by Charles Clarke, the Secretary of State for Education, who told a Commons debate on the Queen's Speech that he knew of at least one member of the Russell Group of universities - which represents the country's elite research establishments - planning to charge a zero fee for its physics course ,although he declined to name it.

Mr Johnson also publicly confirmed for the first time that the Government is considering offering a concession on the earnings level at which students will have to start paying back their fees debt. At present, the figure is £15,000 but it could go up to £18,000 or £20,000.

Kerry Pollard, Labour MP for St Albans, said he and fellow backbencher David Chaytor had suggested to the Prime Minister that it should be increased to the figure for average earnings - £24,000 a year. However, he said Tony Blair had just "shrugged his shoulders" at the plea.

"The Prime Minister probably just shrugged his shoulders at the detail, that being my concern," said Mr Johnson. "He and the Secretary of State (Mr Clarke) are very keen to take on some of the ideas that have been put to us." However, he warned that raising the repayment threshold would be "extremely expensive".

Mr Johnson told MPs that a plan put forward by rebel backbenchers to levy a flat-rate fee of £2,500 a year would end up with many students paying more than they would do under the Government's top-up proposals of up to £3,000 a year.

He acknowledged that the Government may have made a mistake in its reaction to the inquiry by Lord Dearing into higher education in 1997.

The Dearing report had advocated differential fees but warned against scrapping student grants - a recommendation the then Secretary of State for Education, David Blunkett, had ignored.

"Maybe, in hindsight, things would have been done differently," said Mr Johnson.

A spokeswoman for Universities UK, the body that represents vice-chancellors, said it was "too early to say" what fees universities would charge for individual courses.

She acknowledged that the introduction of variable fees would allow them to subsidise less popular courses.

However, many members of the Russell Group - who have no difficulty in attracting students to science courses - are expected to charge the full £3,000 a year.

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