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 Breakfast with Frost
Charles Clarke MP, education secretary
Charles Clarke MP, education secretary

Please note "BBC Breakfast with Frost" must be credited if any part of this transcript is used

DAVID FROST: Now the government wants more young people, half of all school leavers ideally, to go on to university but someone has to foot the bill and now it seems students could end up paying more. The Education Secretary, Charles Clarke, is expected to confirm this week that universities will be allowed to charge up to 3000 a year in fees. Graduates will pay the money back once they start working, although they may be let off if they take up a job in the public sector, such as teaching. Charles Clarke joins me right now from Norwich - on the ball city - good morning, Charles.

CHARLES CLARKE: Good morning David. We're playing Watford this afternoon, I hope we will win, as you say.

DAVID FROST: Yes, and it's on television as well - - for the fans.

CHARLES CLARKE: That's right.

DAVID FROST: And one thing from the papers to start us off, Charles, you were quoted as saying the government will rapidly establish an independent regulator to ensure that a university will not be able to raise fees until it has satisfied the regulations we will introduce. And this access regulator is attacked in the paper, as you will have seen today, by universities who see it as a political commissar. Will you win that argument?

CHARLES CLARKE: I think we will. No regulator will be a political commissar. A number of universities - I'd mention Liverpool and Sheffield, for example - have done extremely well at ensuring that young people do come to their universities from the most disadvantaged backgrounds. They've focused on it, they've worked on it, there's ways of achieving it. We think all the great universities have to do that. And by the way, I think many of the vice chancellors of the great universities acknowledge that point as well. They know that though the system has been a success over recent years in expanding, it hasn't been a success in getting young people from poorer backgrounds to be able to go to university and they know they've got to do that.

DAVID FROST: But in terms of the access regulator, as it were - the jargon phrase - I mean that wasn't in your original blueprint, the papers say that was a concession to Gordon Brown to get his support.

CHARLES CLARKE: I saw those reports - they're not right actually. I discussed this with the prime minister at the point of my appointment at the end of last year, and all drafts of our document have had this in. I discussed it with vice chancellors before Christmas, and as you say there are some who think it is a bit of a worrying idea, the phrases you used, but most, I think, recognise that this is the right way to go.

DAVID FROST: But it would be fair to say you've had vibrant debate - vibrant debate! - with Gordon Brown over this.

CHARLES CLARKE: Not over this particular point. We've had a lot of debate in government because this has been a very tough question, the way in which we can ensure that universities really have a very positive future. And contrary to some of the rumours, not all of my colleagues nor myself are backward in coming forward with our argument - we're all passionate about education, we've all got strong views. And so there has been a lot of debate, and I think rightly and necessarily so. But not around this access regulator point, we've all been agreed on that from the outset.

DAVID FROST: And what about, the sum, the sum that universities will be able to charge, quoted as probably 3000, but whatever that figure is, that is only going to be repaid after they graduate and so up front payments are out.

CHARLES CLARKE: That's right. And I think that will be a very big positive proposals for the families who earn reasonably well but not very well, have had to find at the beginning of their child's university education, about a thousand for fees (pounds) and also to contribute something up to a thousand for their maintenance. So up to two thousand a year. We're immediately halving that so that parents won't be under the same pressure, and we're also taking a step in a direction which I personally think is important, of acknowledging that students should be seen as independent at the age of 18 and developing their future lives on that basis. And I'm very proud of the fact that we will be able to make announcements to that effect later this week.

DAVID FROST: And in fact, I mean it is a white paper, it's not a green paper - some people have suggested it's a green and white paper because you're still fine tuning.

CHARLES CLARKE: It will be a white paper, it clearly sets out what we are going to do. There are one or two aspects we want to talk about further - some of our changes on the research system, for example - but it is a white paper which sets out our proposals clearly. And I'm glad it is because universities have waited a long time for clarity about where we should go and I hope that people will generally welcome the report when I announce it later this week.

DAVID FROST: What's your guess, what's your estimate of the, under these proposals, that somebody going to a university which charges say three thousand (pounds) in top up fees, how much will the student be in debt - would you guess - average amount in debt, end of three years?

CHARLES CLARKE: Well it depends very much on their original circumstances. The level of poverty of their background, for example, because we would put more money in first. But the type of debt that we're talking about, the outside level goes up from about 12 to 15 to about 18 to 21, that kind of thing, for those who are students from the very largest backgrounds. The payback varies according to the income later in life, it might be about 60 a month, for example, for an average civil servant; lower than that for a voluntary sector worker. But the, so the paybacks I don't think are unreasonable and we will be announcing raising the threshold at which you have to start paying back so there will be less requirement to payback initially. But there will be a debt there which is serious.

DAVID FROST: And at the same time, if they have more time to pay, will it be interest free or commercial rates of interest?

CHARLES CLARKE: It certainly won't be commercial rates of interest, and we think much of it will be interest free but I can't announce the details on that today. I will do that later this week but the, it will be significantly less than commercial rates of interest, that I can say.

DAVID FROST: And what about the situation of the MPs, the 180, the 100, the 150 MPs who are deeply worried by all of this, as worried as those vice chancellors. I mean, can you win them over with this package, do you think?

CHARLES CLARKE: I think, I think the deepest worry that my colleagues in the parliamentary Labour Party have had is around the question of access and the fear that any increase in the fees that a university might charge could lead to people being dissuaded from going to university. But we do have a very substantial package on access, including remitting the up front fees, including being able to reduce the amount that you have to pay as you move through, including establishing student grants again. A range of different proposals which I hope my colleagues will agree is a major step to deal with those aspects - quite apart from issues like the access regulator which you mentioned earlier on.

DAVID FROST: And what about the story in the Mail on Sunday today, Clarke plotting to scrap grammars. "A source close to Mr Clarke told the Mail on Sunday Charles sees grammar schools as an anachronism, privately he's let it be known he's backing this campaign of Frank Dobson's to the hilt. There's a good chance that our next election manifesto will commit us to ending the 11-plus once and for all." Are you indeed secretly backing -


DAVID FROST: - admittedly if you say yes, you will no longer be doing it secretly, we realise that but -

CHARLES CLARKE: No I'm not doing that David. What I do think is that the issue of how you educate should be judged very much on standards, which is why I published a report last week into educational standards in Kent where they do have a selective system - and you know the government doesn't support selective systems. But I'm going to look at that debate on standards and see how we move forward. I do think it's right, and where I think everybody's right in this discussion, is to say let's look at the impact of selective education on standards. I'm very -

DAVID FROST: But are there - sorry - are the grammar schools safe in your hands?

CHARLES CLARKE: I have never used that phrase - I don't think anything's safe in anybody's hands ever. I think what is the case, the guarantee I can give is there will be no ideological attack on grammar schools. There will be a discussion with the grammar schools, as for all other schools in the country, about the quality of education that's there, the level of the standards that are provided. I think with grammar schools, with private schools, with maintained schools, with comprehensive schools, with secondary modern schools, the key issue is the standard of education that's there, and we should look at all those standards with a very heavy glance. We should look very carefully at what's happened and focus on improving standards across the range.

DAVID FROST: One last question Charles. With the news today of certain findings in Iraq, do you think we're moving closer to war?

CHARLES CLARKE: Not necessarily at all. I think what we're moving closer to is a very comprehensive report from Mr Blix to the Security Council on the basis of which the decisions will be taken by the members of the Security Council. I think it's encouraging that Mr Blix is turning up the information that he is and I think that will give the basis upon which actions can be taken. I hope myself that the solution will be that the Iraqi regime recognises that they have to acquiesce with the UN Security Council resolutions and I hope that's what they'll do.

DAVID FROST: Charles, thank you very much. Thank you for joining us from the soccer capital of East Anglia. Thank you very much indeed.


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