Tories stand by pledge to scrap top-ups

January 16, 2004

The Conservatives will adhere to a pledge to abolish top-up fees despite promising a review of their higher education policy.

In an interview with The THES , Tim Yeo, the shadow health and education secretary, said: "Our commitment (to abolishing fees) is not one I would see us breaking, but I will talk to vice-chancellors and employers. It has to be seen alongside improvements in vocational education."

Mr Yeo insisted that, in government, his party would overturn the bill, which he expected to be passed into law by Parliament.

He said: "We are against top-up fees. We don't know what the effect of this bill will be, but I don't think it will be defeated. If it does go through, we will know what the landscape of higher education will be at the next general election.

"Even without fees, students forgo income,"Mr Yeo added. "They have debt and commercial debt, and the principle that students contribute is there.

We are not saying that the whole system is completely taxpayer-funded."

He appeared confident that the rebels in the Conservative Party who are threatening to vote with the Labour government for top-up fees would not alter Tory policy.

He aims to have developed detailed proposals for higher education by the summer. There were two principles the Tories would stick to, he said, and a new message they had taken on board.

"There should be freedom for universities academically and on admissions.

Access for students should not be based on ability to pay. Where we have moved is in accepting that there is a funding requirement for universities," Mr Yeo said.

Meanwhile, there is no sign of Scottish MPs accepting Tory leader Michael Howard's advice to abstain from voting on top-ups. He argued it would be "absolutely wrong" for Scots to vote for fees in England since these are not being introduced in Scotland.

The government, on the other hand, will be counting on loyal Scottish Labour MPs to support the bill in the face of a potential backbench rebellion.

Mr Howard said Peter Duncan, Scotland's sole Tory MP, would not vote. The other 17 non-Labour members among Scotland's 72 MPs are expected to vote against fees.

But only nine of Scotland's 54 Labour MPs have signed early-day motions against top-ups, indicating likely support for the bill.

Labour MP George Foulkes condemned Mr Howard's call as "the height of arrogance and ignorance". He said: "Mr Howard has abandoned his party's traditional unionist stance:it is another piece of expediency, as is Tory opposition to tuition fees themselves."

The Scottish National Party, whose policy is to abstain on internal English matters, is urging its MPs to vote no on the basis that increased private funding for English higher education would cut funding coming to Scotland through the Barnett formula.

Annabelle Ewing, SNP education spokesperson at Westminster, tabled a motion opposing fees after the Scottish Parliament's lifelong learning committee warned of their damaging effect north of the border.

She called for full financial powers for the Scottish Parliament, giving Scotland the freedom to invest properly in higher education.

The National Union of Students Scotland has called on all Scottish MPs to vote against the bill "to avert a disaster for future Scottish students".

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