Rumours of spin unite opposition

August 29, 2003

The government this week denied that it was planning to relaunch its top-up fees policy, writes Alison Goddard.

Reports that ministers plan to rebrand £3,000-a-year top-up fees as an "individualised graduate tax" were dismissed by the Department for Education and Skills. A spokesman said that legislation this autumn would refer instead to "variable fees". Ministers would continue to use the white paper's description of a "graduate contribution scheme".

However, New Labour is free to use the term to persuade rebel backbenchers to endorse top-up fees. Ian Gibson, Labour MP for Norwich North, predicted that more than 100 backbenchers would vote against the proposals.

He said: "The government is staring at a very strong potential defeat and it does not seem to be bothered. I think it is going to get a shock and a surprise at the strength of feeling."

The reported rebranding was also attacked as "spin" by opposition MPs. Liberal Democrat education spokesman Phil Willis said: "Does the government really think that students and their families are going to fall for this? The Tories tried to spin their way out of the poll tax and failed. And (education secretary) Charles Clarke will fail to spin top-up fees as something else. Liberal Democrats accept the need to expand high-quality university education, but that should be paid for through fair taxation, not a student tax."

Shadow education secretary Damian Green said: "If ministers think they can end opposition to top-up fees by keeping the policy but changing the spin, they are living in a fantasy land. The reason people from across the political spectrum oppose this policy is that it will saddle students from hard-working families with tens of thousands of pounds of debt, and deny them opportunities."

Students also gave the rumoured rebranding the thumbs down. Mandy Telford, president of the National Union of Students, said: "This is further proof that the government is losing the battle to win over the hearts and minds of backbench Labour MPs and the general public. We are amazed if the government thinks that renaming such an unpopular policy will make things easier in the run-up to the next election."

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