Read our lips: top-up fees simply won't work

October 10, 2003

Labour's conference has convinced Ian Gibson that the government won't listen to reason

There may have been some inspired rhetoric that set off a few feel-good sparks at last week's Labour Party conference. But disaffection among party members over Iraq, foundation hospitals and top-up fees rumbles on. We were granted a token debate on the first issue and made clear our disapproval of the second in the vote. Yet discussion of fees, at least in the main conference chamber, seemed far less contentious than one might have expected. Nevertheless, on the fringe there were some lively meetings, nods and winks, not to mention one or two Granita moments.

We have not come away from conference with the case for top-up fees made any stronger. Nor has the opposition become any weaker. Education secretary Charles Clarke delivered his defence of the proposals to the refrain of "that's fairer", but failed to make the argument any more convincing. Over the past year, this proposal has been presented with an increasing emphasis on equality because the government recognises that top-up fees have no chance of gaining support otherwise. That is why the Office for Fair Access has come about, why the family income threshold for receiving a maintenance grant and partial fees remission has been raised from £10,000 to £15,000 and why it has been suggested that students from poorly performing schools be offered a place at university for lower grades than their educationally privileged counterparts.

Widening access should be an ongoing priority. But when it is being used to justify the introduction of a £3,000 fee by the most elitist higher education institutions, then there is cause for concern. The prospect of student bursaries spreading among universities that have rapidly built up large endowment funds is unrealistic. The main debate at conference seemed to neglect the fact that differential student fees will lead to the richer, better-established institutions raising more money and attracting the best staff, while those with less-established profiles will be forced to charge lower fees and fall further behind, despite already having more diverse student populations and progressive admissions policies.

Perhaps the most challenging task the government faces is changing attitudes to debt. Only three days after the close of conference, government-funded research has concluded that working-class students will be four times less likely to go to university than those from privileged backgrounds if top-up fees are introduced. Schemes may be set in place to encourage the very poorest into university, but large numbers of students, particularly those with little or no parental support, will still face the prospect of more than £20,000 of debt, opting for cheaper courses and colleges and maybe missing out on better employment opportunities. This is the central point on which backbench opposition rests and fundamentally differs from the opportunistic and regressive Tory policy that is based on a 20 per cent cut in university places.

In the same way that we were told there was no alternative to war, we are told there is no alternative to top-up fees. The truth is there has been no attempt to thrash out the alternatives. Following a discussion with Clarke and myself on BBC Look East last weekend, a constituent wrote to me, exasperated at the "why should a bus driver subsidise a barrister?"

argument that the government keeps throwing out. Why, asks my constituent, should he pay taxes so that his young neighbour can have an operation, or receive unemployment benefit? Should they not pay back what the state handed out, seeing as only they have benefited? Such arguments verge on Thatcherism and ignore the vital role that higher education plays in improving society as a whole.

It is laughable that the biggest public consultation over policy should be announced in a year when the government appears to have had little regard for public and party opinion. The chief message at conference was that nothing has changed, nor will it. The prime minister would make the same decision again over Iraq if he had to and, due to his lack of a reverse gear, is intent on forging ahead with unpopular policies. Something such as top-up fees may seem unrelated to the government's policy on Iraq, but it cannot shirk the long shadow of doubt this issue continues to cast over public trust: how much the government "listens" and what it stands for. As well as 80 per cent of the general public, 170 backbenchers have signalled opposition to proposals for top-up fees. When exactly is the listening going to start?

Ian Gibson is Labour MP for Norwich North. He was dean of biological science at the University of East Anglia, 1991-97, and is chairman of the House of Commons science and technology select committee.

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