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Cabinet split over university fees

TONY Blair held a secret meeting this week with the leading candidates to introduce top-up fees to galvanise support for the policy the The THES reports today.

The Prime Minister called for the vice-chancellors of Oxford, Cambridge, Warwick, Bristol, Nottingham, the University of Central England and Imperial College, London, to Downing Street. Charles Clarke, the Education Secretary attended the meeting.

This week the Government admitted it was considering allowing universities to add to the current fee of around pound;1,000 a year as a way of boosting higher education funding. Mr Blair has made clear that Labour will not break its manifesto pledge on fees this parliamentary term but ministers have refused to rule out top-up fees in a Labour third term.

Party divisions over higher education increased when Clare Short became the first Cabinet minister to publicly criticise top-up fees. The International Development Secretary is supported by 65 Labour backbenchers, including former health secretary Frank Dobson, who have signed a parliamentary motion calling on the Government to reject the fees that could see those at top universities paying thousands a year for tuition.

Chancellor Gordon Brown is also said to have "strong doubts" about the scheme.

The higher education minister Margaret Hodge, said fees of up to pound;5,000 were being considered and made it clear that any extra cash for universities will come from students rather than the taxpayer.

Mr Clarke has said that while poor students would be insulated from higher fees, "many young people do not think twice about taking out a loan or credit to buy a car or a holiday".

Stephen Byers, the Blairite former schools minister, said in an article in the Guardian that students who came from families who earn less than pound;25,000 a year should be exempt from fees but that other should pay according to income.

One option is a graduate tax, which students would pay once they were earning, but this would not help universities now. A hybrid system, such as the one used in Australia, where students choose between paying up-front or later on is also under consideration.

The Government will announce the results of its review of higher education funding in January.

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