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EDITIONS
Monday, 4 November, 2002, 14:01 GMT
UK rift over student fees
students
Uncertainty surrounds the future of student support
Labour ministers in Scotland have made clear their opposition to the UK government's plans to let universities charge higher tuition fees.

Removing the 1,100 cap on tuition fees - in spite of Labour's election manifesto pledge not to do so - is understood to be in the government's draft strategy document for higher education.

Publication of this was postponed last week until January, because it was said the new Education Secretary, Charles Clarke, needed more time to get to grips with such a key policy area.

Labour ministers in Wales are also believed to want to abolish tuition fees rather than raise them.

And 70 Labour MPs in the House of Commons have publicly signalled their opposition to top-up fees.

The picture is complicated because education is a devolved matter in Scotland - though not in Wales so far as student finance is concerned.

'Not acceptable'

Technically the long-awaited higher education review is for England - there have been reviews already elsewhere in the UK.

All UK students have to pay tuition fees.

The fees for Scottish students studying in Scotland are paid for them by the government.

Instead, Scottish graduates pay 2,000 towards a hardship fund that provides grants for poorer students.

A spokesperson for the Labour-dominated Scottish Executive said: "Ministers have made it clear that 'top-up' fees are not acceptable in Scotland."

Independent inquiry

He said the executive would monitor what came out of "the United Kingdom review" to consider if there were any implications for Scotland.

It is believed that a similar attitude prevails in Wales.

There, grants have returned in the form of hardship funds of about 750 for poorer students from Wales, wherever in the UK they study.

The take-up in this first year has been slower than expected - not least because what are described as computer software problems mean that no grants have been issued in some of the biggest authorities - Cardiff, Newport and Caerphilly.

Officially ministers are not commenting on the proposed "top-up" tuition fees.

Ongoing

But their policy draws heavily on the Rees Report on student hardship and funding.

The inquiry - chaired by Professor Teresa Rees, a social scientist at Cardiff University - urged the education minister to put pressure on the education secretary in Westminster to abandon tuition fees.

On Monday a senior source in Cardiff would say only that discussions were continuing.

Rees also said more stringent means-testing should be introduced for student loans, to deter the better off from taking out publicly-subsidised loans that they did not need.

Backbenchers unhappy

In the House of Commons, a motion tabled by the Labour backbencher Ian Gibson has attracted the support of another 70 Labour MPs.

The motion says the introduction of top-up fees would "severely undermine" the policy of widening access to higher education "by creating a two-tier university system".

It urges the government to introduce "significant maintenance support for those students who need it".

The Prime Minister, Tony Blair, said in his monthly press briefing on Monday that he was "not going to close off options".

He said the government's proposals would meet four criteria:

  • universities were underfunded so the status quo could not continue
  • they needed more freedom and independence from government
  • poorer students' access to university had to be improved
  • nothing should be done which put a financial barrier "between people and their desire to go to university".


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