THE government routed tuition fee rebels at the Labour party conference this week after pledging to open the door to an additional higher and further education 500,000 students in the next five years.
Opposition to tuition fees collapsed during Wednesday's education debate. A composite motion opposing the government's plans to introduce fees of up to Pounds 1,000 was remitted to the executive, effectively meaning its withdrawal.
The National Union of Students, while it will still campaign against tuition fees, also appears to have thrown in the towel. President Douglas Trainer announced this week that the union will now work to ensure the proper implementation of fees.
Addressing the conference, education secretary David Blunkett said it was important to remember that two million further education students already pay for their tuition. He said of his fee proposals: "It is not breaching a principle of free education. It is putting right an anomaly.
"If we are to expand we need to invest. Expansion equals opportunity, that is why we are looking to find the most sensible, most progressive ways of raising funds. Income contingency means a progressive system based on ability to pay and that's the way we intend to go."
Mr Blunkett also gave the clearest indication yet that the government will not tolerate any institution charging top-up fees. He said: "Our programme is entirely geared to preventing top-up fees and no top-up fees will be charged under our programme."
The government has said that the money raised from tuition fees and student loan reforms will help increase access to higher and further education and improve the quality of education offered. However, few in either sector expected the scale of expansion revealed by Tony Blair in his speech to conference on Tuesday.
Mr Blair said: "And if we reform, I am going to pledge to you that, by the end of this parliament, we will put resources saved through reform into frontline provision in universities and further education I We will lift the cap on student numbers and set a target for an extra 500,000 people into higher and further education by 2002."
The Department for Education and Employment would not say how the extra 500,000 will break down between higher and further education. Spokesmen said that details would be announced later this year, possibly to coincide with the publication of the Lifelong Learning white paper, expected in November.
But Mr Blunkett told the House of Commons education and employment select committee last week that the government is considering increasing the proportion of 18 to 21-year-olds in higher education to 35 per cent over the next three to four years. The present participation rate is 32.5 per cent. Two and a half percentage points would mean around an extra 40,000 to 50,000 students, according to theDFEE. Many believe the remaining 450,000 people must be destined for further education.
Roger Ward, chief executive of the Association of Colleges, said: "There is little doubt in my mind that, if put into practice, the bulk of the 500,000 extra people will be heading towards a vocational college education. It is an ambitious target which is to be welcomed but we must have the resources."
David Melville, chief executive of the Further Education Funding Council, said: "The secretary of state has consistently referred to improving funding. The implication is more expansion in FE."
A spokesman for the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals said: "We welcome the lifting of the cap as long as the resources are there. We would want to work in partnership with further education to ensure the courses people are looking for were appropriately provided."
Baroness Blackstone told two conference fringe meetings that her next priority had to be to seek extra money for further education.