Page last updated at 19:37 GMT, Monday, 16 March 2009

Recession to mean fees resistance

Increasing student tuition fees during an economic downturn is likely to prompt "resistance", says Charles Clarke, the education secretary who faced down a backbench rebellion over raising fees in 2004.

Charles Clarke defends tuition fees

With the government about to consider the future level of tuition fees, Mr Clarke says the recession is going to have an impact on any decisions.

"There is no doubt that in the recession there will be a lot of resistance to thinking the fee level should be significantly raised.

"In the current economic climate it's a difficult state of affairs."

But looking back on the parliamentary battle over tuition fees in 2004, Mr Clarke says that he has been proved right.

"We won the argument overwhelmingly," he says.

The principle of students being charged fees, repayable when they were working, is now recognised as a "necessary and vital reform".

"The most conclusive evidence is that only a few years afterwards there is very little criticism of it," he says.


Although at the time it was attacked by Labour left-wingers, he says it is now recognised as "one of the most progressive tax changes Labour made during this period".

Charles Clarke, 1975
Charles Clarke, a student leader, in 1975

He says that the reform of fees created a much fairer system. It recognised that those who were most advantaged by a public service should make a contribution - but only when they were able to afford it.

The principle, only half-heartedly adopted in Scotland, has been overturned there with the scrapping of the "graduate contribution" for Scottish students.

And there was strong opposition from backbenchers in January 2004, in the biggest rebellion by Labour MPs that had faced the government.

Mr Clarke says that it was far from clear that the government would win the vote - with many "sincerely held fears" among opponents.

The battle was about ideas, rather than internal factions, he says. And he says that even if the government had lost, the prime minister, Tony Blair, would not have resigned.

With the benefit of hindsight, he says, when he opened the fees debate in a highly-charged House of Commons, he now wishes he had been more direct.

"It was an absolutely important and necessary reform," he says. It also should have been more clear that this was about treating people as adults at the age of 18 - and not appendages of their parents.

'Partial' progress

Raising fees was intended to put more money into higher education - and as part of this balancing act, the government said that universities would become more accessible to youngsters from less well off families.

Have the universities kept their side of the bargain?

"Only partially," he says. The ambition to widen participation has only been achieved "at the margins".

While the increased tuition fees did not deter students from poorer families, as had been claimed, there also has not been the wider access that had been sought.

The reluctance to apply to university is deep rooted in the attitudes of families and experience of school, he says, and will take a long time to change.

"The fears didn't come to pass, but the hopes still have a long way to go."

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