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The BBC's Carole Walker
"He's helping develop a multi-million pound package"
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Baroness Warwick, Committee of Vice Chancellors
"Money for access is going to be very welcome"
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Tuesday, 30 May, 2000, 17:17 GMT 18:17 UK
Labour calls for end to 'elitism'

Labour wants more state school entrants at top colleges
Cash incentives could be made available to universities which recruit more state-educated students, Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott has hinted.

In a keynote address, Mr Prescott tried to turn the row over access to top universities to Labour's advantage, by emphasising the party's pledge to extend opportunity to the less privileged.

The Labour Party is, always was, always will be, the party that fights for a better chance for the majority

The Tory Party is, always was, always will be, the party that stands up for a privileged few

John Prescott
And he urged top further education establishments to admit more pupils from non-private schools.

The deputy premier 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.

But Conservatives reacted angrily to Labour's intervention in universities' admissions policies and have accused the party of indulging in "class war rhetoric."

John Prescott holding his Labour election pledge card
John Prescott: "Widening opportunity"
The political storm over university entrance was sparked by an Oxford college's refusal to give a well-qualified comprehensive school pupil a place.

The chancellor called the decision a disgrace.

Speaking at the University of Greenwich in Kent, Mr Prescott said: "This government's mission is to deliver opportunity and security in a world of change.

"That is what we're all about. About giving to the majority of people the life chances taken for granted by the privileged few."

'Widening opportunity'

Mr Prescott went on: "Nobody should be surprised if the spending review widens opportunity in our universities, or provides the resources for schools to combat under-achievement, wherever it may exist, in the heartlands or middle England," he said.

Then taking the attack to the Conservatives, he said: "The Tories want a sort of national memory black-out of everything that happened in the 18 years before May 1997."

He added: "The Labour Party is, always was, always will be, the party that fights for a better chance for the majority.

"The Tory Party is, always was, always will be, the party that stands up for a privileged few."

It makes no sense to embark on this old-fashioned class war rhetoric

Francis Maude
But the shadow foreign secretary, Francis Maude, hit back, saying: "It makes no sense to embark on this old-fashioned class war rhetoric."

Branding Labour's plans to influence admissions policy "stalinist", Mr Maude added: "The idea that there is a deliberate policy of discrimination against state schools is simply absurd."

Liberal Democrat Dr Evan Harris said the government was to blame for making university entrance difficult for young adults from under-privileged backgrounds.

"While we need to get more university applications from students from inner cities and poorer backgrounds, it is the government's own policies which have made students even poorer," he said.

But university chiefs warned that were no instant solutions to attracting more students from disadvantaged backgrounds, saying that broadening access would depend on long-term outreach projects with schools.

Baroness Warwick, head of the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals, said universities wanted the "best and brightest students regardless of backgrounds", but that the government should not "expect results immediately".

The heartlands and middle England

Ahead of the speech, Downing Street played down reports that those universities which do not act on the government's initiatives will be penalised.

The prime minister's official spokesman said: "It is about saying there is going to be more money available. None of this is anti-the top universities."

Mr Prescott also referred to the disquiet among some of Labour's traditional supporters and MPs over the government's direction.

Mr Prescott insisted that: "The heartlands and middle England are united by the same basic decent values; above all, a belief in fairness, in social justice, a belief that everyone deserves the chance to get on and make the most of themselves," he said.

"The same values that motivated Keir Hardie", he said, "are the same ones that motivate Tony Blair."

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See also:

29 May 00 | UK Politics
Brown 'plans £40bn boost'
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27 May 00 | UK Politics
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Labour's 'class war' over Oxbridge
25 May 00 | UK Politics
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