A Labour government would move against universities which introduced top-up fees to ensure that they gained no financial advantage from them.
Speaking at this week's party conference in Blackpool, David Blunkett, shadow secretary of state for education and employment, said top-up fees would create a divided and fragmented system and promised: "We will ensure that they are not carried through under a Labour government."
A spokesman for Mr Blunkett declined to spell out exactly how this would be achieved but said Labour would ensure that no university received any financial benefit from top-ups.
It is unlikely that Labour would risk legislation, which might be seen as a threat to academic autonomy. Instructions to funding bodies seem the likeliest method, but this may be illegal under the 1988 Education Act.
The pledge came as conference voted to accept the further and higher education policies laid out in a series of papers published during the last year. A resolution rejecting the income-contingent loan scheme proposed in the Lifelong Learning Paper in favour of a return to Labour's traditional grants-based policy was thrown out by 61 to 39 per cent.
Catherine Taylor, Young Labour representative on the national executive committee, said the resolution called on Labour "to make a priority of spending Pounds 2.5 billion on restoring grants. This policy is not supported by either Labour students or the National Union of Students. What we want is a loan system that works, and a higher education system that gives more people the opportunity to learn."
Labour leader Tony Blair said from the platform that his three main priorities would be "education, education and education". He promised that in Labour's first five years it would increase the proportion of national income spent on education and reduce the share on "the welfare bills of social failure".
The emphasis on education was reflected in large, frequently standing-room-only attendances at fringe meetings. Speaking at a front-bench question-time session Steve Byers, spokesman on training, foreshadowed a change in emphasis in policies for the adult unemployed. He said the Labour document to be issued shortly would offer over-25s jobs with a training entitlement attached, rather than training schemes. "The thinking has been that training would lead on to jobs, but that hasn't worked out. We've seen people stuck in a revolving door of unemployment, then training, then unemployment. We need something different and radical and are looking at the possibility of job creation measures backed by high quality training." Mr Byers also reiterated the promise of Pounds 150 million to set up a million individual learning accounts in Labour's first year.
* A packed AUT-Natfhe fringe meeting on funding heard Baroness Blackstone, master of Birkbeck College, launch a scathing assault on Government assumptions about the availability of private funding. She said it was a ludicrous use of heads of institutions' time for them to try to extract money from "rich contacts or reptilian businessmen who want to make their companies respectable".