Midwife of fees calls for freeze

September 29, 2006

Claire Sanders reports from the Labour Party conference in Manchester.

The Higher Education Minister who introduced university tuition fees eight years ago has this week pleaded with the Government not to charge students more.

Baroness Blackstone, who was Higher Education Minister when the fledgling Blair Government controversially introduced tuition charges for home undergraduates in 1998, told delegates at a Labour conference fringe meeting that it would be a "profound mistake" to raise fees from £3,000 after a planned review of top-up fees in 2009.

She said: "I find it hugely worrying when I hear arguments that the cap should be raised. It would be a profound mistake. A Labour Government must avoid doing that." Lady Blackstone, now vice-chancellor of Greenwich University, was forced to defend the original decision to introduce flat-rate fees of £1,000 a year.

Bill Rammell, the current Higher Education Minister, told the fringe meeting that the party had made two mistakes when it first introduced fees, by abolishing grants and insisting students pay up front.

Lady Blackstone said: "Remember we means-tested the fees. Forty per cent of students never paid them. And we expected a parental contribution. Now students find themselves in debt in their twenties at a time when they are struggling to pay mortgages and start families," she said.

Lady Blackstone said the Government must put more money into teaching in universities. While the country needed more science and engineering students, she argued, they must not be supported to the detriment of other students.

Her comments were welcomed by students and vice-chancellors at the fringe meeting, organised by the new universities' lobby group Campaigning for Mainstream Universities.

Mr Rammell said student funding arrangements were progressive and higher education expansion could not take place without a student contribution.

He pointed out that the Leitch review of skills, expected this year, was likely to say that 65 per cent of young people should participate in higher education. The Government had previously set a 50 per cent target.

At an earlier fringe meeting organised by the Work Foundation, Alan Johnson, the Education Secretary, said the Government was still committed to getting half of all young people into higher education, although the target was unlikely to be reached by 2010. "The important message is that we support expansion. We need more graduates in the workforce," he said.

Both Mr Johnson and Mr Rammell said in a number of fringe meetings that the UK suffered from a serious skills shortage and more weight should be placed on vocational qualifications.

"Parents go to dinner parties and boast that their child is doing medieval history at Oxford, but they don't if their child is doing an engineering degree elsewhere," Mr Johnson said.

Mr Rammell, speaking at a fringe meeting organised by the University of Central England, said: "I am concerned that while all students with 2 A levels get into university, only 60 per cent with the equivalent vocational qualifications do so."


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