Labour high-flyers in public appeal to Blair over university fees

By Andy McSmith
Sunday 26 January 2003 01:00

Labour's newest MPs, including several marked out as future ministers, will deliver a public appeal to Tony Blair this week to drop his plan to allow universities to charge higher fees to students.

A letter signed by more than half the Labour MPs elected for the first time in 2001 will warn that top-up fees could undermine the Government's aim to get more working-class students into university. They fear that the prospect of running up debts of up to £21,000 will be a deterrent to students from less-privileged backgrounds.

The protest will underline the scale of the political problem facing Charles Clarke, the Secretary of State for Education, and his team of ministers as they begin a series of meetings with academics, students and party activists to win support for the package of university reforms announced last week.

Mr Clarke – privately relieved that his White Paper received a less hostile reception than he had feared – now has about 10 months to steer it through the Commons without a humiliating defeat. Government business managers admit they cannot rule out the possibility that a coalition of Labour rebels and opposition MPs will throw out the proposal when it goes to the Commons late this year.

The rebels include Jon Cruddas, one of Mr Blair's political advisers in Downing Street before the 2001 election; Tom Watson, who was political officer in the main Blairite trade union, Amicus; and Kevin Brennan, a former aide to Rhodri Morgan, the Welsh First Secretary. All are part of the 2001 intake of new MPs.

Paul Farrelly, the former Observer journalist organising the protest, said: "We're writing to the Prime Minister to make clear that the problem of student debt has not been tackled. This debate has been behind closed doors so far. It needs to be out in the open."

The rebels have been spurred on by the belief that they have the implicit backing of the Chancellor, Gordon Brown, and other cabinet ministers who have privately criticised the planned reforms.

There was an unusual public display of the tensions within the Government last week when Mr Clarke came under fire in the Commons from a fellow cabinet minister's parliamentary secretary.

Anne Campbell, the aide to Patricia Hewitt, the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, asked Mr Clarke what would induce students from low-income families to go to a world-class university, when they could save £9,000 in annual fees by going elsewhere. Ms Campbell, whose seat covers Cambridge University, has repeatedly warned that working-class students are being deterred from entering prestigious universities.

Mr Clarke had hoped to neutralise opposition with his proposal to appoint an "access regulator" to ensure universities are doing enough to attract poorer students. But the new post has been attacked both by universities and by opponents of top-up fees.

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