'I've received hate mail but this is a good deal for young people'

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UNIVERSITIES minister David Willetts has revealed he received hate mail in response to the controversial rise in tuition fees which sparked riots in London.

But the 54-year-old Havant Tory MP this week renewed his pledge to enlighten the population about a policy that he says 'puts power in the hands of the students'.

Mr Willetts told The News: 'There has been a bit of hate mail, but there have been no death threats and I've never feared for my life.

'For a period of about two to three weeks police were advising that I shouldn't do public speaking events, but I think we're back on track now.'

Mr Willetts and his colleagues in the department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), have come under fire for their reforms to university funding.

Under Coalition plans, the university teaching budget will be slashed by 80 per cent to just 700m in 2014/15.

Responsibility for funding courses will shift to individual students who can take out government loans to cover a rise in tuition fees costing up to 9,000 a year.

Significantly, however, graduates do not start paying back before they earn 21,000.

This equates to smaller payments over a longer time compared with students who currently have to start paying back when they are on 15,000.

Mr Willetts said: 'The underlying issue is many young people are worried about their futures - what kind of job they'll get, the relevance of their course and starting up on the housing ladder.

'Too many costs are hitting people in their 20s and early 30s when they are trying to start a family.

'I'm spreading that out. Lower costs when you are in your 20s means you pay back for longer.'

The new plans for higher education funding are favourable to deprived students.

Those on free school meals get their first two years of university for free, maintenance grants for students from households on less than 25,000 rise to 3,250, and the lowest earning 25 per cent of graduates will pay less than they do now.

Despite this Mr Willetts says the message is not getting through.

Senior Lib Dem Simon Hughes - who abstained from the tuition fees vote - has now been recruited to persuade young people they can still go to university.

Mr Willetts said: 'This language of fees and loans got in the way of what is a graduate contribution scheme.

'I am shocked at the number of graduates who think they have to pay to go to university when that simply is not true.'

Although Mr Willetts was educated privately before going up to Oxford, he said he is a strong believer in access for disadvantaged students to top universities.

But recent statistics reveal pupils on free school meals are 55 times less likely to get into Oxbridge than their privately educated counterparts.

Mr Willetts, a father-of-two, said this was ‘not acceptable'.

‘In the last five years of Labour there has been a surge in applications to university, particularly amongst the poorer groups, but access to our most competitive research intensive universities has not been brilliant,' he said.

‘That's why we will be clear about what we expect universities to do if they want to raise fees above 6,000 - they'll have to make a real effort not just with the poorest and most disadvantaged students, but also other groups like disabled or mature, part-time students.'

As a political sciences graduate himself, Mr Willetts - nicknamed ‘Two Brains' because of his high intellect - is quick to dismiss fears that non ‘strategically important' subjects like the arts will be deprived of funding in favour of the sciences.

He said: ‘The fear is misplaced. Teaching costs are being transferred to universities who are charging fees.

‘When courses such as medicine have higher costs we still would provide for that extra cost.

‘I don't have favourites. I don't say we must be nice to physics or horrible to French.

‘A lot of people in the humanities fear there is an agenda against them but I am trying to explain how much we value them.

‘For me personally, my English and History teachers at A-level transformed my life.'

Mr Willetts accepts motives for going to university could change as youngsters face higher tuition fees from 2012.

He said: ‘I think students in future will ask rather more searching questions about their degree.

‘That's no bad thing. Going to university for young people is still a good deal. It transforms their life.

‘It's an opportunity which helps them earn more, and that's part of the moral argument for what we are doing.

‘We've not simply delivered cuts. We've delivered a reform.

‘Our reforms are an agent of student power - that's the paradox of these protests. It puts power in the hands of the students.'

Tory MP defends

tuition fees rise