Abolish fees call amid high-level doubts

September 22, 2000

Alan Thomson reports from the Lib Dem's conference in Bournemouth

Liberal Democrats have reaffirmed calls to abolish tuition fees, even though a senior party member said abolition would penalise the poor.

Delegates passed a motion on Wednesday calling for undergraduate fee abolition in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, and for a student maintenance package for under-represented groups in higher and further education.

An amendment to the motion by the Liberal Democrat Youth and Students' group was passed, calling on conference to note the government's refusal to rule out top-up fees.

The LDYS also called for amendment of the Teaching and Higher Education Act to rule out top-up fees. The act does not rule out differential fees, providing instead for claw back of university income from top-up fees.

But the previous evening, the party's higher education spokesman, Evan Harris, told a fringe meeting that abolition of fees is "somewhat regressive" because they are means tested so that the poorest third, rising to half following the government's increase in the payment threshold, of students do not pay.

"But students should be concerned about the failure of government to rule out differential fees," Dr Harris said. "There is a danger of sleepwalking into top-up fees."

At the same meeting, Bournemouth University's vice-chancellor, Gillian Slater, said that the reintroduction of maintenance grants was her top priority as it was vital for widening participation. She added that tuition fees were acceptable if they were the only way of getting extra money into higher education.

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