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The back door to new polytechnics

Charles Clarke should remember the lesson of Sir Keith Joseph.

The former Conservative education secretary tried to introduce means-tested tuition fees in 1984. But middle England erupted and he was forced to back down.

Now the current Education Secretary wants to introduce top-up fees, though he shies away from using the phrase and concedes that some students will end up in debt to the tune of pound;18,000 to 21,000.

He claims that his proposals will shift the cost of university education from parents to their children. But, if the plans go through - and with some MPs saying the battle is even bigger than that with Iraq it is not a certainty - the middle-class parents will pay for their offspring. The poor may simply not go.

If ministers want to re-create the polytechnics, then this is as good a way as any.

Universities will be allowed to charge top-up fees, providing they can persuade a regulator that they have tried to recruit more students from disadvantaged homes. Richer students will continue to favour the Russell Group of elite universities, such as Oxbridge, Imperial College, Warwick, and Manchester. The rest will go to the new universities, formerly the polytechnics, which are unlikely to charge extra fees for fear of losing their markets.

Governments should know by now that the universities have a pretty good track record in getting their own way (remember the rows over academic freedom?) They certainly won't take easily to any proposal which seems to dictate to them who they should and should not take. And how do they find these disadvantaged students? Should students send in their parents' tax return when they fill out the Ucas form? This may not be so tongue in cheek. The White Paper says it wants some sensitive indicators to measure access, including students' family income, their parents' levels of education, and the average results of the school or college they attended.

Get your Mum to pretend she did not go to university and you are in!

On Tuesday, government said it wanted to end the two-tier divide between academic and vocational learning. On Wednesday, we saw the re-emergence of the universitypolytechnic two- tier system, and gaps between richer and poorer - universities and students.

So far this debate has been all about universities and student fees. Yet if the Government is going to get anywhere near its target of 50 per cent 18 to 30-year-olds in higher education by 2010 it needs the FE colleges.

Colleges already deliver higher education to around 170,000 students, approximately 10 per cent of all HE students. Some 229 colleges are funded to deliver HEcourses.

According to the Association of Colleges, HE students in FE colleges are drawn much more from the middle and lower groups than higher education generally, and have a social profile skewed towards the manual working class. These are the very people Mr Clarke wants to recruit. More than 40 per cent of new entrants to HE have previously studied in FE colleges, and the proportion is rising.

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