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Scottish anomaly hurled at Blunkett in fees debate

Opposition parties enjoyed embarrassing the Government over plans to introduce Pounds 1,000 tuition fees for university students from next autumn in Parliament this week.

In a Conservative-inspired debate in the House of Commons on Tuesday, Tory and Liberal Democrat spokesmen - and some Labour back-benchers - attacked the plans to introduce the fees at the same time as abolishing the maintenance grant. It also emerged during the day that the fees are to be increased in line with inflation from 1999 onwards.

MPs were specially critical of the plan to charge English, Welsh and Northern Irish students more to take four-year courses at Scottish universities than their counterparts from Scotland and EU countries.

"An Umbrian from Italy will pay Pounds 1,000 less than a Northumbrian, " Don Foster, Liberal Democrat education spokesman, pointed out.

But David Blunkett, the Education and Employment Secretary, said fears about the plans were being "whipped up". He said he was writing to potential students to make sure they knew the facts and were not discouraged from applying for a place. (Applications are currently running 8 to 10 per cent below the normal level.) Several speakers said the difference in fees between Scottish and other UK students would have a serious impact on student numbers in some Scottish universities and could even lead to the closure of whole institutions.

Martin O'Neill, Labour MP for Ochil, said the University of Stirling, where nearly a third of students come from outside Scotland, was "very worried".

Replying to the debate, Scottish education minister Brian Wilson offered no concessions on the differential. The only explanation he could give was that the Garrick Report required him to ensure that the contribution by Scottish students was comparable to that of students from other parts of the UK for comparable degrees. "As soon as you deal with one anomaly, you create another, " he said.

But he pointed out that one third of all students in higher education - and 40 per cent in Scotland - would pay no fees at all as they would be exempt under the means-test. "It is not fair to people from less well-off backgrounds who will be frightened out of higher education by scaremongering," he declared. And he stressed that, under the revised loans scheme proposed by the Government, students would be repaying less per year than they did now.

Stephen Dorrell, Opposition education secretary, accused the Government of "serial incompetence" over higher education.

But his attack was weakened by his inability to say what the Tories would have done on the fees and grants issue.

And Mr Blunkett was able to point out that the Conservatives appeared to be split three ways on the fees and grants issue. Some had welcomed his announcement as "courageous", while Gerry Malone, the Conservative candidate in the Winchester by-election, had promised to back local students in their campaign against tuition fees.

* Student activists have been told to "shut up or get out" of the National Union of Students, in a wrangle over policy. At least two national executive members claim they have being gagged from speaking on the issue of tuition fees, and face suspension from their duties.

The union has been in disarray since the Education Secretary thanked leaders for supporting tuition fees.

The remarks have led to a campaign by student unions to oust NUS president Douglas Trainer from his post for "cuddling up" to the Government on the issue. Mr Blunkett's remark has led to the creation of factions and battles between the 22 NEC officials.

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