Student 'top-up' fees look inevitable

8th November 2002 at 00:00
CHARLES Clarke signalled business as usual in his first speech as Education Secretary: raising standards, cutting bureaucracy, attacking indiscipline. But he quickly faced a trickier challenge - whether to allow universities to set their own fees.

Mr Clarke got Tony Blair to delay yet further the higher education review, a move intended to suggest he was in charge. With reports that Estelle Morris had to fight the No 10 policy chief, Andrew Adonis, over top-up fees, Mr Clarke has to be seen considering the issue carefully.

The Sunday Telegraph reported that both Gordon Brown and David Blunkett oppose top-up fees. And former health secretary Frank Dobson described them in The Observer as part of an "elitist" trend extending to schools and hospitals.

But Mr Brown's preferred graduate tax is no more popular with voters (see today's TES poll). And talk of a "cabinet revolt" over the issue seems far-fetched. Mr Blair repeated the principles behind reform at his monthly press conference on Monday.

After 18 months' deliberation, the drive towards top-up fees is probably unstoppable, despite the fact that Mr Clarke, a former student leader, may be personally against them. The most the Education Secretary can do now is to shape the package to ensure poorer students avoid the fees of more than pound;10,000 a year suggested in some headlines. This requires money, hence his early meeting with the Chancellor (see story right).

That visit also helped avoid any pigeon-holing of Mr Clarke as a Blairite, a view that has already led the Brownite Daily Mirror to attack his promotion.

As junior education minister in 1998, Mr Clarke's first press briefing on baseline assessment of five-year-olds sparked mischievous reports that toddlers would be streamed. He became more cautious with education correspondents afterwards.

He has enjoyed a successful, gaffe-free first fortnight in his new job. But first judgment on his record must await January's higher education proposals.

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