Charles Clarke is not backing down over the controversial fees plan
Moves to allow English universities to charge students thousands of pounds towards the cost of their tuition have been defended by the Education Secretary, Charles Clarke.
Speaking at a conference of Commonwealth universities at Queen's University in Belfast, Mr Clarke said there was no alternative to the controversial plan, which could see students charged up to £3,000 a year from September 2006.
The minister said his plans were "actually rather conservative" when compared to the level of fees charged by universities in the United States.
And he suggested that different universities and different courses could charge different levels of fees.
"At a time of growing pressure on public budgets, it is simply no longer
feasible to pay for higher education for all," said Mr Clarke.
"In England, closing the funding gap entirely through taxpayers'
contributions won't happen.
"Why? Because there are other and better ways to spend extra money in
education, by increasing the amount of money we spend on early years, breaking a
cycle of poverty for the under-fives - not to mention competition from other
areas," he said.
Higher Education Minister Alan Johnson told the BBC the government's plans were fair.
"What we are saying here is
that we need to invest and expand in higher education and we need to ensure that
more youngsters from poorer backgrounds go to university," said Mr Johnson.
"The fact that we're saying up-front fees will go, parents won't have to pay
anything, students won't have to pay anything, graduates will pay a contribution
- income contingent when they're earning more than £15,000 a year - I think is
fair and strikes the right balance."
The higher education sector could not be financed as it was in the 1960s, with 43% of young people now going to university, he said.
Ministers were listening closely to those Labour MPs who were sceptical about the proposals, he added.
But former education minister George Mudie said Tony Blair could be facing his most serious domestic test to date.
"We've seen trouble with foundation hospitals, we've
seen anger over Iraq, they'll all been minor compared to what I think will
happen over tuition fees or top-up fees."
Labour MP Martin Salter, who has vowed to vote against the
proposal, said: "It makes no sense for the government to be alienating
those people that it worked so hard to draw into the big tent that became New
Mr Clarke also told the conference in Belfast he wanted to see greater cooperation and less rivalry between British universities and those in other countries, notably the Commonwealth.
"I believe that universities must work within their own political environment to enhance their constructive economic and social impact, which means engaging with their communities rather than standing aside from them," Mr Clarke said.
"And, as they do that, they have to do it in a way which inhibits the negative effects of competition and promotes the positive effects of collaboration."
Mr Clarke told the conference he would be giving details of a "communication and collaboration" initiative at the Commonwealth education ministers' conference in Edinburgh in October.