Top-up fees 'would condemn students to decades of debt'

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Liberal Democrats vowed yesterday to oppose any move to introduce university top-up fees and outlined radical proposals for American-style "mix and match" courses to replace conventional degrees.

Delegates overwhelmingly backed a motion calling for a system of state-funded vouchers to cover tuition fees in English universities, funded by the party's proposed 50 per cent tax rate on income in excess of £100,000.

Phil Willis, the education spokesman, condemned proposals to allow universities to charge up to £3,000 a year in top-up fees as Tony Blair's "most blatant deception".

He urged Labour backbenchers to rebel against the proposals, declaring: "Mr Blair, do not condemn today's young people to decades of debt. Do not turn top-up fees into your poll tax. Prime Minister, listen, and drop the tax on learning now."

He added: "I say to Labour MPs: stand by your manifesto pledge and vote against top-up fees. I say to Tony Blair, when Britain was far less prosperous the nation paid for you and every one of your cabinet colleagues to receive a debt-free higher education."

Under proposals backed by delegates yesterday, traditional university degrees would be replaced by a series of modular courses, allowing students to switch between full-time and part-time studies, and even move from university to university while building credits towards their degree.

Party leaders hope the reform would eventually allow students to move between universities in Europe and even America, as well as allowing young people to work while they learn at home.

Baroness Sharp of Guildford, the party's education spokesman in the Lords, told delegates: "What we are asking you to consider is changing the structure of higher education in this country to recognise that in the 21st century we need to look much more widely at the concept of higher education and embrace other routes than the traditional A-level and university route."

She said: "If they want to, students could start part time and then go full time or vice versa. They could mix and match as appropriate."

Sarah Teather, the victor in last week's Brent East by-election, told delegates her youngest brother had decided not to go to university because he could not afford it. She said: "Tony Blair, if you're listening to me today, I want you to abolish tuition fees and abandon top-up fees. They are divisive and an affront to justice and we as a party will do everything in our power to stop them."

Earlier, the party backed demands to replace the council tax with a local income tax of up to 3 per cent. Edward Davey, the party's local government spokesman, said: "We need to send a powerful message to the Government. It's a message that literally millions of people want us to send ... It's a message anyone who cares about fair taxes wants us to send: scrap council tax."

Party leaders gave their support to a national petition urging Mr Blair to "axe the tax"

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