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The BBC's June Kelly
"Labour are building on a theme"
 real 28k

Wednesday, 31 May, 2000, 01:51 GMT 02:51 UK
Hague stokes elitism row

Laura Spence: Centre of political attention
Tory leader William Hague has fuelled the debate over educational elitism by accusing Labour of launching "cheap and mindless" attacks on British universities.

Mr Hague describes the political attention placed on a Tyneside comprehensive pupil rejected by Oxford University as "shamefully cynical".


William Hague accuses of Labour of 'cynicism'
He was responding to Chancellor Gordon Brown's attack on Magdelen College, Oxford, after it rejected an application from straight-A student Laura Spence, who was later accepted by Harvard.

Mr Hague condemned the way Mr Brown made a political example of the student in the week she was sitting her 'A' levels.

He described it as "one of the most shamefully cynical acts by a British politician" that he could recall, accusing Mr Brown of abusing his power and behaving irresponsibly.

His remarks, in an article for the Daily Telegraph, come the day after Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott hinted at penalties for elitist universities as part of the government's wider agenda to break down barriers to opportunity.

Party pledge

Labour is continuing to build on the theme launched by its Chancellor, trying to widen the row over university elitism by emphasising the party's pledge to extend opportunity to all.

It maintains that its policies are geared towards breaking down barriers across all institutions.

"Don't be surprised that this government wants to get more comprehensive children into top universities and the Civil Service, just as we wanted to give working people the chance of lifelong learning," Mr Prescott told an audience at the University of Greenwich in Kent.


John Prescott holding his Labour election pledge card
John Prescott: "Widening opportunity"
The government could introduce cash incentives for universities which recruit more state-educated students, he said.

Mr Prescott made clear that the theme of extension of opportunity would be at the heart of Labour's pre-election strategy.

He argued it was "immoral" to deny those from less privileged backgrounds access to the best education and indicated that the summer's Comprehensive Spending Review would include measures to widen access.



The poor standards in our state schools is the national scandal the government should be attacking

William Hague
A Labour spokesman said: "No-one can defend a position where less than 10% of students attend private schools but they take more than 50% of the places at leading universities."

But Mr Hague, himself a north of England comprehensive school student who made it to Oxford, accuses Labour of perpetuating an outdated image of Britain in his article.

"Only a politician speaking from a position of deliberate ignorance could describe the modern Oxford University as representative of an old Britain where what matters more, are the privileges you are born with, rather than the potential you have", he writes.

Mr Hague continues: "The poor standards in some of our state schools is the national scandal the government should be tackling."

'Height of hypocrisy'

Liberal Democrat Dr Evan Harris accused Labour of putting up rather than breaking down barriers with its policies on higher education.

"This is the government that has imposed tuition fees and at a stroke abolished maintenance grants for poorer students.

"It's the height of hypocrisy for John Prescott and others to complain about a low number of applicants from low socio-economic groups," said Dr Evans.

The government's campaign for "opportunities for all" is set to remain in the spotlight with high-profile speeches by Education Secretary David Blunkett on Thursday and Mr Prescott on Friday.

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See also:

29 May 00 | UK Politics
Brown 'plans £40bn boost'
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Elderly focus of policy battle
27 May 00 | UK Politics
Cook attacks Whitehall 'elitism'
26 May 00 | UK Politics
Labour's 'class war' over Oxbridge
25 May 00 | UK Politics
Poll monitor: Tories far from victory
24 May 00 | UK Politics
Parties electioneer over grey vote
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