The word in the student bar: this is a recipe for élitism

Undergraduates are resolutely opposed to Government's plan
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Indy Politics

Pints were two for £1 in the students' union bar at Liverpool University on Friday night, but only on production of a question paper from the exams just finished. The students trying to chill out with a drink remained agitated however - not by tests and revision, but by tuition fees and the Government.

"Top-up fees are bound to lead to some kind of élitist system, where poorer students go to less prestigious universities and richer students go to the best universities," said Ian Cook, 21, from Manchester, who is studying philosophy and politics. "Labour says they are trying to create equality in society but the proposals will do the exact opposite. There is no equality in this system. They will affect future generations in a bad way."

The debate got personal - even vicious - in academia, when a leading professor of education attacked students last week, claiming that "forty per cent of their debt is entertainment, booze and drugs". Professor James Tooley, of Newcastle University, said: "When I get in debt, I rein my spending in. If they'd just work more and drink less, they'd be better off. Fight student debt - shut the student bar - that's the slogan."

But in Liverpool, nine students talking politics in a corner of the bar shrugged off Professor Tooley's words, determined to keep to the point. They may have had bargain pints in their hands but this was serious. Pete Mathershaw, a 21-year-old history student from nearby Ellesmere Port, fears the worst. "Universities need greater funding than top-up fees would provide," he said. "My biggest fear is that when the cap comes off in 2011 the amount will be much greater than £3,000 and universities will become exclusively the preserve of the rich."

He seemed unimpressed by Charles Clarke's attempts at reassurance. "It will prevent people from working class and lower middle class backgrounds going to university. Education should break down barriers rather than create them, and I think the Prime Minister is creating barriers."

Deftly navigating through hordes of sweaty dancers in the Sara Wiwa bar, Christine O'Driscoll (Irish studies) knew she was about to voice the unpopular idea that Tony Blair just might have got it right. "I support top-up fees because I think they would enable people who haven't got parents who can pay their fees to go to university. Their degree will allow them to get a good job and pay it back when they start earning. Top-up fees will reduce the amount of people going to university, which is beneficial, because there are too many people who have got degrees."

But Max Guarini, who is reading politics, could barely clear his throat of smoke fast enough to butt in. "Most parentless students don't pay fees even under the current system," he said.

It is last orders here. Max and seven of the nine students would like to think it will be the same for Tony Blair on Tuesday night.