Labour offers bill concession

December 19, 1997

ACADEMIC protest has forced the government to consider amending its controversial Teaching and Higher Education Bill.

But serious opposition remains as both the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives intend to push for measures to ensure that money from student tuition fees goes into the higher education system rather than to the Treasury.

Education minister Baroness Blackstone last week told the House of Lords, which gave the bill a second reading, that the government would consider an amendment to clarify clause 18 of the bill, published on November .

The clause, which aimed to prevent top-up fees by granting the education secretary highly prescriptive powers over university charges, led university law experts to claim that it undermined institutional and academic freedom.

Baroness Blackstone told the Lords: "It does not give the secretary of state power to set university fees. Universities will retain their essential freedoms, including the freedom to set fees for various categories of students.

"We have already taken a close look at the drafting of the clause, and we are prepared to clarify it through an appropriate amendment at committee stage."

Peers welcomed such an amendment, but many are still suspicious of the bill. Liberal Democrat Lords education spokesman, Lord Tope, said, "We shall have to see what amendment they come up with. I suspect it won't go far enough."

Baroness Kennedy, author of the report on widening participation in further education, defended clause 18. "If the government is to prevent higher education remaining something that is only available to middle-class families, the issue of top-up fees is one on which it must engage."

The bill will enter the committee stage in the new year. Conservatives and Liberal Democrats will both bring forward amendments calling for hypothecation of fee income at this stage.

The Liberal Democrat higher education spokesman, Phil Willis, who is working with Lord Tope on amendments, said the bill at present offered "no money for universities, a tax on students and a threat to institutional autonomy". He expects strong cross-party support for a hypothecation amendment.

Baroness Blatch, Conservative education spokesman in the Lords and a former education minister, said: "One effect of sending money directly to institutions rather than having a complex mechanism to handle it will be to cut out a great raft of democracy."

Before introducing their hypothecation amendment, the Liberal Democrats will try to have tuition fees struck down in their entirety.

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