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Wednesday, 30 October, 2002, 23:49 GMT
University funding plans delayed again
students on campus
Better-off students may be facing higher fees
The long-awaited government review of its strategy for higher education in England has been postponed again - to next January.

The new Education Secretary, Charles Clarke, is said to want time to "engage fully in this key policy issue".

Officials at the Department for Education said he would make an announcement - which had been expected next month - "to his own timescale".

Mr Clarke told the BBC's Newsnight programme that higher tuition fees for students were "still very relevant" although the government would honour a manifesto agreement not to introduce them in this Parliament.

When you see the actual proposals that we put forward, you will find a large part of that is to do with improving access for students from poorer backgrounds

Tony Blair
He added: "But the manifesto has made a number of other commitments as well and that is what we have to try and achieve, and that's the policy which I'm trying to address."

Mr Clarke's office earlier confirmed January as the likely new date for the review.

Prime Minister Tony Blair said he "of course" stood by the manifesto commitment not to introduce them, although his spokesman later refused to say whether the pledge would last beyond this Parliament.

'Global competition'

Mr Blair told MPs: "If any system means there are people prevented from going to university because of their family background and income, that is wholly wrong."

But he said there were "serious and real issues that have to be tackled".

The country could not go on with a situation in which top universities were not able "to compete in what is effectively a world market".

"It would be irresponsible of any government, faced with this situation, not to make sure both that we give the universities the freedom they need to compete and that we make sure that there is better access for those students from poorer backgrounds."

Charles Clarke
Charles Clarke: Getting to grips
Earlier it was suggested that some of the UK's most prestigious universities are considering going private if the government does not allow them to charge students much higher tuition fees.

BBC News Online revealed recently that Imperial College, London, was making plans to charge fees of 10,500 a year or more, on the assumption that the government's announcement would remove the 1,100 cap on fees.

Its plans also assume that other members of the 19-strong Russell Group of research-based institutions were also intending to charge so-called "top-up" fees.

A report in The Times newspaper on Wednesday said Mr Clarke could trigger a declaration of independence on their part if he reneged on what they believed was a "done deal".

Loss of income

The president of Universities UK, representing the heads of all the higher education institutions, Roderick Floud, told BBC News: "I haven't heard of any university proposing to do that."

He did not rule it out, but said they would lose a lot of public funding - for teaching, "possibly" for research, for capital programmes - "so it would be a very serious step for any university to take".

Professor Floud added the postponed review must not be more than a "short delay".

Charles Clarke's predecessor Estelle Morris, who resigned last week, is said to have come under sustained pressure from Downing Street to allow top-up fees.

But Mr Clarke's officials are reported as saying he will not be forced into a corner by either the universities or the prime minister's office.

A report on the issue from the Commons education select committee earlier this year proposed that better off students should pay more.

It also proposed extending the education maintenance allowances, paid to some further education students, into the university sector.

The National Union of Students, which opposes top-up fees, estimates its members graduate with typical debts of 15,000.

The BBC's Mike Baker
"Making students or parents pay more is political dynamite"
Education Secretary Charles Clarke
"I said I wouldn't rule it out"
Professor David Greenaway
"It is important we get some new options"

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Analysis: Mike Baker

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