Clegg plea over university costs
Nick Clegg appealed to would-be students not to be put off going to university by "myths" about the costs as he sought to win back votes lost by the Liberal Democrat's U-turn on raising tuition fees.
The Deputy Prime Minister said "wild" predictions that charging up to £9,000 per year would make degrees a "luxury" for the rich had proved unfounded - with applications from poorer households rising.
He sought to pin the credit on measures he championed to mitigate the impact of the fee rise, which was in breach of his party's 2010 election promise and for which he issued a public apology.
But the party was forced to play down fears that drastic cuts to the budget of one of the help schemes from 2015 could act to deter less-well-off youngsters.
The Lib Dems secured a sizeable proportion of the student vote in 2010 on a promise to oppose any rise in fees but saw that support all but disappear after entering coalition with the Tories and dropping it.
Mr Clegg used a speech to pupils and parents at a school in East London to kick off a week-long charm offensive intended to show support for young people.
"I've said I'm sorry for that, and I meant it," he said of the broken tuition fees pledge.
"But what matters to me now is that you know you can still afford to go to university - and that you don't let the myths that have emerged crowd out the facts.
"This may not have been the policy my party wanted, but I made absolutely sure that it wouldn't turn a degree into a luxury for the very rich."
That included increased grants and support for youngsters from poorer backgrounds as well as ensuring nothing was paid until after graduation and when someone was earning at least £21,000.
"We now have the highest application rates ever. More young men and women are going full-time to university than ever before," he said.
"A higher proportion of students from poorer backgrounds are going than ever before...e ntry rates for students from nearly every ethnic minority are at their highest level ever.
"So to all of you, to each and every one of you: if a degree is what you want, you can still have it - you've just got to work hard.
"To the mums and dads in the room: if you've always hoped to one day see that framed graduation photo of your son or daughter on your mantelpiece - you can still have it.
"Whatever you heard in the past, don't let it lower your sights for the future. University may not be for everyone, but it is open to everyone."
The National Scholarship Programme, w hich offers fee waivers and bursaries to the poorest students, will see its funding slashed by two thirds from £150 million to £50 million a year from 2015.
Critics said it was a "vital lifeline" for many and cutting it showed " a casual disregard for the realities of students".
"We would not have done it if we thought it was going to have that impact," a senior Lib Dem source said - saying the programme was only one part of the effort to minimise the impact of higher fees.
"It was always a time-limited policy; it's just been time limited a bit earlier."
A Labour Party spokesman said: "The reason young people have turned away from Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems is because of their broken promises.
"He said he'd scrap tuition fees but then he trebled them. You can't trust a word that Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats say."
After giving his speech, Mr Clegg was questioned by the young people about university costs.
Farjana Begum, 18, asked him why the Government makes decisions which affect young people "without asking them how they feel about things" and told him the majority of her friends do not agree with the policy on tuition fees.
Mr Clegg replied: "We took that decision... as a democratic Government trying to do the best thing for society as a whole and part of that decision, as I explained earlier, was controversial.
"Unpopular though it was - and obviously in your opinion still is - we basically said that how you divvy up who pays what between the graduate and the Government should change."
He added: "We just don't have as much money to go around so you have to make choices.
"Yes, you have to listen to people, of course you do, but you also need to make choices you think are as fair and balanced as possible.
"If you don't like the choices we make, not only tell me now but then obviously make your views known in the ballot box in the next election."