Paul Farrelly: Opponents to top-up fees won't be bought off

Do we want to leave the architecture of a market in place for a future right-wing Tory government?
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"Not so much a pick-and-mix menu as a right dog's dinner." That was how one plain-speaking Labour backbencher (not one of life's natural rebels) described the university top-up fees Bill to me this week.

I would certainly not go so far, nor be as uncharitable. There is no doubt that Charles Clarke has tried to meet certain demands. The trouble is that the Education Secretary stands between a rock and a hard place. He is chained by variability, a "non-negotiable" not of his own making, on the one hand.

And he can't buy off rebels by raiding the Treasury, on the other - even if the Chancellor were minded to let him. A central purpose, after all, of the reforms is to shift the burden of university funding from the state to the student.

Not surprisingly, then, the much-heralded "concessions" barely satisfy anyone. Not the élite universities, who want to be off the leash to charge as much as they want. And certainly not most of those bolshie Labour backbenchers, who don't want to turn education into a marketplace at all.

Like many of them, I was the first of my family ever to go to university. My dad left school at 12 to make horse boxes and trap rabbits in Ireland. My mum left school in Newcastle-under-Lyme, my Staffordshire constituency, at 15 and became a nurse. At 16, I was expected to go out to work and add to the family income. But I dug my heels in to continue my education.

And that was in the days of full grants. If a price had been shoved under my nose then, as it will be under variable fees, it would have been another bullet to deter the stubborn mule. And if the awkward cuss still refused to lie down, the pressure would have been to choose a cheaper course, at a cheaper university.

These days, happily, many more people go on to higher education. A few days after Charles announced the White Paper a year ago, however, I was presenting Princess Diana Memorial Awards at a local school. They went to star pupils who had led an anti-bullying campaign. Just the sort of working-class kids who should be carrying on to university.

Some parents told me, however, that they wouldn't be allowing their children to go. Because they had seen Clarke singing on TV not about the "graduate contribution", not about the "individualised graduate tax", but about the £21,000 of D-E-B-T that might hang round their kids' necks at the end of it.

Times have certainly changed, but when the social composition of children attending university is stuck in a warp, they have clearly not changed that much.

These are the reasons I put down an Early Day Motion in 2002, when these plans were being mooted by unelected advisers and elitist vice-chancellors. Charles was warned. In all, before and after the White Paper, 180 Labour backbenchers signed motions against top-up fees.

Most of us are achingly boring, loyal middle-of-the-road moderates, who never imagined that deaf ears and "blinkmanship" would have this effect. So before the arm-twisting starts in earnest, this is not a plot or a putsch. It is an argument about policy, principle - not least a manifesto commitment - and, as we live in the real world, about practicality.

So where does this leave the "concessions" in the Higher Education Bill we will finally be voting on, Hutton permitting, in a fortnight's time? Not only far short, I think, of meeting the main concerns, but frankly disappointing.

Clearly, any improvement for children from poorer families is welcome. But it is still not enough and the bursary scheme is feeble compared with the kites Charles was flying before Christmas. Crucially, too, there is no mechanism to redistribute resources between rich universities and poor.

The department simply rejects the concern that institutions outside the "élite" might not be able to sustain higher fees. So what happens when they run out of money? Do poorer students, under pressure to study close to home, get courses that are simply cheap to run? Or do they go bust? Where, by the way too, is the funding for Wales which is having this thorny issue devolved into its lap. And any comfort for Scotland, whose universities might also suffer?

As for the regulator, will it really have teeth? Where is the draft, model "access agreement"? Is OFFA any more than a lightning conductor for dissent on the Labour backbenches? Many, including the Select Committee, remain to be persuaded.

As for variability, the requirement for a vote in both Houses on raising the £3,000 cap in the future does not take the sting out. Who knows how the Parliament after next will look? Do we want to leave the architecture of a market in place for a future right-wing Tory government? Not at all.

At the start, this debate was about getting more money, with certainty, into our universities. Variability and markets, however, are inherently uncertain - unlike public funding or flat contributions (with flexibility, of course, for foundation degrees, problem subjects and occupations such as student nurses, as the Government already proposes).

These plans, however, seem more about pushing through "variability" at (almost) any price. They are certainly not pick and mix. They are an inedible menu.

The writer is Labour MP for Newcastle-under-Lyme