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No poison lvy League

Labour MP explains why Tony Blair will not introduce top-up fees

I strongly supported the introduction of tuition fees backed by loans two years ago, because, having worked in universities for ten years before becoming an MP, I did not see any other way to expand higher education and restore funding.

To rectify the crisis our universities faced when Labour came to power would have cost 3p or 4p on the standard rate of income tax. The idea that any government would levy that tax increase and then spend the proceeds on universities and students, when there are so many other pressing demands on public spending, is neither the politics nor the economics of the real world.

The net result of the new system is that funding for universities is going up. For the four years from 1997 funding for universities will increase in real terms by 11 per cent.

But, and it is a huge "but" for me, moving on from this new system to allow universities to charge differential top-up fees would not only be a step too far, it would impede this government's attempts to expand student numbers and increase access for students from less well-off backgrounds.

In Australia a tuition fee system similar to our own was introduced in 1989. But in 1996 top-up fees were allowed and now seven Australian universities charge full fees of more than Pounds 8,000 per year. The results have been predictable - a drop in overall applications and a slump in applications from mature students. And there has also been a narrowing of the social backgrounds of students attending these universities.

In the United States, there is a clear two-tier system with universities able to charge what the market will bear. Yes, there are scholarships and bursaries for the very poor. But that is based on a system of philanthropic private donations to universities that this country is light years away from. And I am not convinced that this system of charitable postgraduate donation would be accepted by our students who have been brought up with a very different ethos.

So top-up fees in this country would run the huge risk of creating Ivy League institutions accessible only to students from the most prosperous backgrounds, with everyone else going to universities that would be seen as second rate.

The Russell Group of Britain's top 20 research universities, which is as adept at spinning as any political organisation I know, says these problems can be overcome and that the government is moving their way. Yet the facts suggest otherwise.

It is this government that legislated to stop top-up fees, and David Blunkett has recently made clear his continuing opposition to them. The issue also creates clear political water between Labour and the Conservatives, who want top-up fees. Such political distance can only help the government at the general election.

What Mr Blunkett has made clear is that when the Russell Group argues for top-up fees, it should debate in an honest manner. The group must face up to the difficult question of where the money for bursaries would come from. And it must explain why top-up fees would not worsen the already poor representation of students from poor backgrounds at their universities.

I do not believe these questions can be answered without enormous damage to access and the overall standard and reputation of all our universities.

This government is fostering

progressive change in our universities for the first time in a generation. It should not undermine this by allowing top-up fees that would mean the best for those who can afford it and "Splott Poly" for everyone else. I do not believe it will.

Bill Rammell is the Labour MP for Harlow and used to be a manager at the University of London.

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