Battle to stave off fees defeat

August 8, 2003

The government and universities will join forces to save Labour's plans for top-up fees from the growing prospect of defeat this autumn.

Ministers, desperate to build support for £3,000 top-up fees in the face of a threatened rebellion by Labour backbenchers, have found natural allies in universities' leaders, who see higher charges as their only realistic chance of increased income.

Writing in today's THES, Philip Cowley, an authority on backbench rebellions based at Nottingham University, says fee legislation could produce the government's first parliamentary defeat.

In a fight for the hearts and minds of Labour MPs, ministers and universities will be competing against the National Union of Students and trade unions, which will be lobbying backbenchers to vote against top-up fee legislation due to be introduced in the autumn.

The government, which plans to launch its policy offensive next month before the start of the new parliamentary session, has identified three basic types of potential Labour backbench rebels. The first comprises MPs immutably opposed to top-up fees, who are seen as a lost cause.

Next are MPs in traditional Labour seats who fear that higher fees could deter constituents with no experience of higher education. The government thinks it can win over these MPs by explaining the redistributive nature of the proposals and arguing that top-up fees can widen access to higher education for the poor.

The third, and most challenging, group comprises MPs in relatively affluent seats that swung to Labour from the Conservatives during its election victory in 1997. A number of these MPs have small majorities and fear that top-up fees could lose them their seats in the next election.

Ministers and whips will tell these MPs that they can win the argument on top-up fees because middle-class parents will not have to pay a penny, unless they choose to support their children, and all graduate repayments will depend on earnings. They will also say that the extra cash will help improve teaching quality.

But MPs see this as a tall order when people from wealthy backgrounds will be charged the full £3,000 while those from poor families will be means-tested on part of the fee and will be eligible for grants and university bursaries.

Brian White, MP for Milton Keynes Northeast since May 1997, supports the government's policy but may still vote against the legislation amid concerns for his slender 1,829 majority.

Mr White said: "If it was to be implemented, the effect in my constituency, which is a typical middle-England seat, would be massive anti-government sympathy. I think we would be crazy to implement something when people are still unhappy about it. We have not yet won the arguments. It's going to be tough."

Hilton Dawson, MP for Lancaster and Wyre since 1997, sits on a majority of just 481 and has about 12,000 Lancaster University and St Martin's College students in his constituency. He supports higher flat-rate fees but not the differential charging the government has in mind. He plans to vote against the legislation.

Mr Dawson said: "Differential fees will mean students from poorer backgrounds are put off applying to the best universities and most expensive courses.

"I support flat-rate fees, though, because it is vital to get funding into universities and to get more people into higher education."

Universities UK, the umbrella group for vice-chancellors, plans to speak to as many MPs as possible in all parties to drum up support for top-up fees.

The new president, Ivor Crewe, vice-chancellor of Essex University, has met new higher education minister Alan Johnson to discuss issues. Professor Crewe will ask vice-chancellors to lobby their local MPs directly on the need for higher fees.

In its effort to halt top-up fees, the NUS has been running an email campaign targeting MPs for some time. It will back this with a postcard campaign and a push to get students to inundate MPs' local surgeries in September and October. The union plans a national demonstration on October 26.

NUS president Mandy Telford said: "Many Labour MPs are clearly rattled by the whole issue of top-up fees, and I think that a majority believes top-up fees are wrong. I simply don't think the government will get the legislation through."

The Association of University Teachers is considering a lobbying campaign.

It has submitted a motion to the Trades Union Congress in September condemning proposals in the white paper, including top-up fees.

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