Children from middle-class families have been warned by the Secretary of State for Education, Charles Clarke, that they will have to pay more for a university education.
Writing in The Independent on Sunday today, Mr Clarke has a gloomy message for middle-class parents of primary and secondary school children, although lower-income families might take heart from an implied promise that their children can still aspire to a free university place.
In his first foray into higher education policy since his appointment after the resignation of Estelle Morris last month, Mr Clarke points out that most 18-year-olds want to be financially independent, and will willingly get into debt to buy a car or pay for a holiday. He suggests that they should be even more willing to pay for an education "that lasts for life".
His words make clear that the Government is still considering the suggestion that students should be charged "top-up" fees, an issue which is threatening to open a rift within the Labour Party.
Mr Clarke wants to encourage diversity among universities, enabling some to become world-class research centres while others concentrate on developing links with local businesses or admitting older students.
Fees would be one means to this end, but Mr Clarke hints at other possibilities, including loans or a graduate tax, and warned that the argument over fees is threatening to achieve "iconic status", clouding the wider debate on the future of higher education.
The idea is being pushed by several prestigious universities, notably Imperial College, London, and has been sympathetically received by Downing Street, despite a promise in Labour's 2001 manifesto that there would be no "top-up" fees in the current Parliament.
About 60 Labour MPs, including several former ministers, have signed a Commons motion opposing "top-up" fees. More significantly, the measure has encountered opposition within the Cabinet, notably from the Chancellor, Gordon Brown.
As a former student leader, whose Norwich South constituency contain the University of East Anglia, Mr Clarke was thought to be instinctively opposed to "top-up" fees, but on the day of his appointment he said that he was keeping an open mind on the subject.
In today's article, he acknowledges that universities are chronically underfunded, putting the figure for the "backlog" of capital investment they need at £5.3bn – a lower figure than that quoted by some academics.
He warns that all the money cannot come from the Government, but that a large part of the burden will fall on the students themselves.
He also warns that extra money from the taxpayer may come accompanied by demands that the universities improve the way that they are organised.
"Government enters this area at its peril, because academic independence is a genuine value which should not be jeopardised," he acknowledges.
But he adds: "It is at least worth asking how well our universities, of whatever type, have organised themselves to meet the challenge of the global competitive economy.
"We do this in every other walk of life. We question how our schools are run, how our hospitals are run and how businesses reinvent themselves to be innovators. Universities should be challenging themselves to be cutting-edge innovators."
He also urges wealthy graduates to behave more like their US counterparts by donating to their former colleges.
His article pointedly criticises the universities for the fact that 75 per cent of their students are drawn from middle-class backgrounds – a clear sign that he will want any increases in student fees accompanied by exemptions for students from working-class families.
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