Top-up fees were the "fairest" way of funding university courses, Education Secretary Charles Clarke told delegates at the Labour Party conference today.
Faced with a tide of criticism over the Government's proposals for tuition fees, Mr Clarke said the taxpayer would continue to pay "the lion's share" of higher education costs.
"But I believe that it is reasonable and fair to ask graduates to pay a proportion of the costs of the university education from which they benefit for the rest of their life."
Mr Clarke told the Bournemouth conference that "hard choices" had to be made and he wanted to give priority to under-five provision.
University students currently benefited on average to the tune of £5,300 a year from general taxation, compared to just £1,800 spent on the education and care of every three-year-old.
Mr Clarke said students from poorer families would get either a grant or remission of fees and ministers were discussing with universities the possibility of extra help to pay even the highest fees.
"Universities which want to charge higher fees will have to prove that their courses really are equally open to applications from anyone in this country. That's fairer.
"No longer will potential students have to find £1,100 a year before they even set foot on a university campus a massive barrier to entry removed at a stroke. That's fairer.
"Middle class parents who now have to find that money will no longer have to do so. They'll be able to choose. The money will be paid afterwards by the graduate and not upfront. That's fairer."
Mr Clarke said no graduate earning less than Â£15,000 a year would have to pay a penny towards their education.
"Our proposals allow us to get universities the money which they need to expand and grow."
The Tories, however, would remove the opportunity of a university education from 100,000 young people a year, he said.
"They are the enemy of aspiration and the enemy of achievement."
More resources were needed for the under-fives because early intervention could bring the greatest benefits.
"That is why my personal priority for the use of education resources has to be to strengthen and extend the provision we make for our children."
Mr Clarke said "education, education, education" remained and would always be Labour's priority and urged party supporters not to turn their backs on the need for change.
He expressed regret over the schools funding problems earlier this year and pledged to prevent them happening again.
"We have promised and will deliver a real per pupil increase in funding for every school."
Earlier, top-up fees came under fire from delegates including Tim Cheetham, of Barnsley Central CLP, who warned: "If we continue to shift the burden of education funding on to the student and their families it will serve as a bar to higher education and that will be particularly true in areas like mine."
Karim Palant, chair of the party's student movement, told delegates: "We do not believe that top-up fees are the answer to funding the Government's crucial expansion of higher education.
"We are all passionately committed to getting the majority, not the minority, of kids into higher education."
Shadow education secretary Damian Green, responding to Mr Clarke's speech, said: "Charles Clarke's promise to students is a high debt, high tax future.
"There can't be a better way of discouraging relatively poor students from applying to university in the first place."Reuse content