Portillo switches tack to toe party line on top-ups

January 23, 2004

As the higher education bill reaches its second reading on Tuesday, THES reporters weigh up the opposition and analyse the last-minute manoeuvring

Michael Portillo, the former Tory rebel who had been leading calls among disaffected Conservatives to support the government's top-up fee proposals, now intends to vote against the bill, writes Alison Goddard.

Mr Portillo, MP for Kensington and Chelsea, whose constituency includes Imperial College London, was widely seen as having accepted the college's case for top-up fees.

The rector of Imperial College, Sir Richard Sykes, was instrumental in persuading Tony Blair of the need for increased, variable tuition fees. Sir Richard had argued that it cost Imperial College some £10,500 a year to teach an undergraduate.

The change of heart by Mr Portillo, who is due to stand down at the next election, was this week welcomed by Imperial College students, who are against top-up fees.

Mustafa Arif, president of Imperial College Union, said: "It is important that as many MPs as possible - from all shades of the political spectrum - vote against this bill so that we can have a sensible discussion about the alternatives.

"Other Conservative rebels should take note of Michael Portillo's decision and vote against the government."

Despite Mr Portillo's promise to vote with fellow Tories against the higher education bill, Tim Yeo, the shadow education secretary, remains convinced that the bill will be passed at its second reading in the Commons on Tuesday.

Michael Howard, the Conservative Party leader, has admitted that his party has yet to formulate proposals for funding universities.

He said: "The truth is that the universities have a funding problem. The shortfall has been variously estimated at £10 billion or £11 billion. But neither the government nor ourselves have any proposals to deal with that."

Mr Howard added that he had "the gravest reservations about tuition fees" and reiterated his party's pledge to develop a higher education policy before the next election.

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