Two recent presidents of the National Union of Students squared up to each other over top-up fees this week, with one abandoning his opposition to government plans and the other warning that variable fees are divisive.
Andrew Pakes , NUS president from 1998 to 2000, said that, as a student leader, he had been mistaken in opposing tuition fees.
Mr Pakes, who has since worked as a Labour Party policy adviser, said the priority had to be to ensure that those from poor backgrounds were supported financially while they studied.
He said: “The NUS has focused too much on the fee element rather than living costs and access. The government proposals get rid of that upfront charge and put some of the money back into students’ pockets.
“It was a mistake for the student movement as a whole to oppose tuition fees. We failed to look at the heart of the issue, which was to get more working-class students into university and give them enough to live on.”
Mr Pakes said every funding system to date had failed to attract people from low-income backgrounds into higher education.
Douglas Trainer , NUS president from 1996 to 1998, is opposed to variable fees and believes Labour backbenchers are right to try to derail the forthcoming higher education bill.
He said: “Variable fees will lead to league tables, and students will end up going to the university they can afford, not the one they should be going to.” Abolishing upfront charges was a step in the right direction, but he was adamant that allowing universities to vary fees depending on the course was “a very retrograde step”.
“Variable charges are not levied for other public services, and universities should not be the first to do so,” he said.
During his term as president, Mr Trainer said the NUS maintained that the £1,000 fee introduced by Labour did not make economic sense and would be the thin edge of the wedge.
He believed that in future fees could rise even higher than the £3,000 proposed by the government.