MPs have accused student union leaders of being "selfish and greedy" for refusing to back an interest rate rise on student loans, writes Tony Tysome.
Members of the Commons education select committee rounded on National Union of Students officials as they presented evidence to the committee's higher education inquiry this week.
NUS president Mandy Telford told the committee that she opposed the imposition of a real rate of interest on student loans because it would hit graduates who went into lower paid jobs such as public-sector employment the hardest. It could also deter people from working-class backgrounds from entering higher education, she said.
Any money raised by higher fees that might be repaid via loans should be ploughed back into higher education and student support, she added.
Committee members questioned the motives behind NUS's opposition to a market rate of interest being charged on student loans, which it has been estimated could raise an extra £1 billion a year for education.
Chairman Barry Sheerman asked whether the NUS was not being "rather selfish and greedy" by protecting middle-class students at the expense of those from working-class backgrounds in colleges and schools that might benefit from a funding boost.
He said: "You will the end, but not the means, to widening participation.
You are not willing to say that the money would be better spent on keeping kids in education from 14 to 18-years-old."
Ms Telford said the NUS wanted to protect the poorest students. She said:
"If you charge a higher interest rate, those who are the poorest will end up paying the most for the rest of their lives."
NUS higher education researcher Sofija Opacic told the committee that there was mounting evidence that some groups of students were facing discrimination from admissions tutors. Many fell into the non-traditional category the government wanted to target.
Roger Brown, vice-chairman of the Standing Conference of Principals and principal of Southampton Institute, said there were significant problems with other measures introduced to widen access, such as foundation degrees, which he described as "a solution looking for a problem".