Bright youngsters from disadvantaged backgrounds could have up to two years of their university tuition fees paid for them under new Government plans.
Ministers believe that 18,000 students a year could benefit from the scheme, saving up to £18,000 from the cost of their higher education and significantly increasing the numbers of children from poorer families who go to university.
Under the scheme, any student eligible for free school meals who is accepted for a place at university would have one year’s fees paid by the state, said a Government source.
Universities which choose to charge more than £6,000 a year in fees – expected to include elite institutions such as Oxford and Cambridge – will be required to fund a further year’s tuition for these students.
The state’s share of funding for the scheme will be covered by a £150 million National Scholarship Programme announced by Business Secretary Vince Cable when he unveiled the Government’s proposals for an increase in the fees cap from £3,375 to £9,000 from 2013.
Ministers will next week consult with representatives of students and universities before deciding how the Scholarship Programme money will be spent. But the proposal for a year’s free tuition has emerged as the preferred option over alternatives such as an increase in the maintenance grant for poorer students.
It has strong backing from Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, who believes the Government needs to shift the debate away from the political contortions his Liberal Democrats are going through over which way they will vote on fees, and on to the measures being taken to ensure the package is fair.
Liberal Democrat sources have said it had still not been decided which way their 57 MPs – including Mr Clegg – will vote in Thursday’s key House of Commons vote on fees.
Mr Cable sowed confusion with a local newspaper interview on Friday in which he said he had “no doubt” he would vote in favour of the legislation, which as Business Secretary he is responsible for guiding through Parliament. He had previously suggested he would abide by a collective abstention policy if it could be agreed by the whole parliamentary party.
But within hours of his comments to the Richmond and Twickenham Times, Mr Cable had switched direction again, insisting that the Lib Dems would decide together which way to vote.