Lib Dem council leader backs student protest fee call

By Sean Coughlan
BBC News education correspondent

image captionThere are protests planned ahead of this week's vote on raising fees

The Liberal Democrat leader of Newcastle city council has told students who occupied the council chamber that he will lobby party leader Nick Clegg not to raise tuition fees.

David Faulkner said he had a "fair dialogue" with the students and agreed to e-mail all the party's MPs voicing opposition to the fees plan.

MPs will vote on Thursday whether to raise tuition fees to £9,000 per year.

Student protesters say they will occupy schools as well as universities.

Students in Newcastle entered the council chamber on Tuesday afternoon.

'Strength of feeling'

Among their demands was for the council leader to lobby MPs against the plan to raise tuition fees.

Mr Faulkner, the council leader, said he was sympathetic to the students' views and said that if he had been an MP he would vote against the fees proposals.

As such he has agreed to send an e-mail to Lib Dem MPs, including Mr Clegg, saying he hoped they will "oppose the proposals".

"I understand the strength of feeling," said Mr Faulkner.

Students campaigning against higher fees and public spending cuts have been staging an occupation at Newcastle University - and the wave of occupations has seen at least four more occupations starting, in Bath, Bradford, Bristol and Goldsmiths.

For the first time, school pupils as well as university students are expected to hold occupations this week.

Three secondary schools in north London are believed to be planning sit-ins on Wednesday, as part of a day of protests around the country.

Protesters want to put pressure on MPs ahead of the fees vote on Thursday.

Another Conservative MP looks set not to back plans to increase tuition fees in England to £9,000 per year.

Lee Scott's office indicated that the Ilford North MP would not support the fee rise in Thursday's vote.

Protecting access

The coalition government has emphasised that the fees package will be accompanied by measures to ensure that less well off students will not be deterred from applying.

On Tuesday, the business department released draft details of how universities will be encouraged to protect access for poorer students.

There will not be quotas or any interference in admissions, but universities will need an annual "access agreement" to be approved by the Office for Fair Access, if they want to charge more than £6,000 per year.

"I'm emphasising to our universities that if they want to charge over £6,000 a year to our undergraduates, then I am looking to them to do everything they can to make sure they are attracting our brightest and best students," says Universities Minister David Willetts.

The National Union of Students' president, Aaron Porter, rejected the proposals on access as "toothless".

Research from Aimhigher, the body which runs schemes to encourage more low-income students to apply to university, claims that less than a third of young people would be willing to pay £9,000 per year in fees.

Aimhigher, which is to have its funding stopped next year, has researched the attitudes of young people in London and Merseyside.

It also found that there was little enthusiasm for a graduate tax - and that shorter or part-time courses were not popular.

The research suggested that there remained unknown consequences from the decisions set to be taken by MPs this week.

Graeme Atherton, executive director of Aimhigher in west, north and central London, warned: "There has been no detailed modelling of the potential impact of fees on young people's decision making."

Universities are also divided - with splits between different types of university over whether they should back the plan to raise fees and to withdraw teaching grants.

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