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 Wednesday, 22 January, 2003, 15:08 GMT
The fees revolt that won't die
Student protesters
Fees plans have sparked protests over alleged elitism

Tony Blair's hopes of averting a serious revolt over student finances appears to have backfired.

While he may have ended the row over "up front" fees, he has sparked another equally damaging one over student debt and elitism - breaking an election pledge into the bargain.

And this is one that strikes at the heart of what many believe is a core Labour principle - that higher education should be open to all, irrespective of their ability to pay or their class.

A student
Students facing big debts
Indeed, the prime minister constantly refers to his determination to turn Britain into a meritocracy.

And on the very day Charles Clarke was announcing his new proposals, the prime minister's official spokesman confirmed this ambition.

New Labour wanted to ensure access to top universities was open to all, he said.

Merit and ability

And Education Secretary Charles Clarke announced a series of measures, such as grants for the very poorest, clearly aimed at averting the worst effects of the imposition of student fees.

But it was clear his reassurances that the policy was "just" and University admissions would be based on "merit and ability" did not satisfy many of the backbench rebels.

And the more the details emerged, the more the opposition claimed it was the result of a messy compromise aimed at ending a major cabinet split between Mr Clarke and Chancellor Gordon Brown.

Education Secretary Charles Clarke
Clarke faced MPs attacks
And they have a point. There certainly has been a row over top up fees and, while Gordon Brown has not got everything he wants - in the form of a graduate tax - neither have those pressing for wider reforms.

This is fertile territory for the Tories who will be able to exploit the obvious Labour backbench anger at the plans.

And that revolt shows no sign of easing.

Creaming off

What seriously worries the rebels is the fear that, by landing students with debts of up to 21,000, it will discourage working class pupils from going to University.

At the same time it is feared that by giving Universities the right to charge differential fees, it will create a two tier system with elite institutions creaming off the wealthiest students and widening the gap between them and the rest.

Critics claim the proposal of offering grants to students from families with joint incomes less than 10,000 a year will not help because it will only affect the very poorest.

Equally the creation of an "access regulator" to force Universities to take students from all backgrounds has received a mixed response.

Moves to ensure a more equitable admissions policy have been welcomed.

But it has also been pointed out that the regulator will not be able to force less well off students to apply to go to University in the first place.

It is feared that the new system will encourage many would-be students and their parents to believe higher education is simply not meant for them.

But few doubt that this was a nettle that had to be grasped.

Britain's Universities are crying out for investment and it either comes from students or from general taxation.

The government has decided taxation would be the worse of the two evils.


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22 Jan 03 | Education
20 Jan 03 | Education
14 Jan 03 | Education
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