Anniversary report from academy

May 1, 1998

THES reporters assess the impact of Labour's first year of government on higher and further education and unravel how they have sold their policies to the country


DIANA Warwick, chief executive of the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals, said: "From the start the education secretary clearly recognised higher education's financial crisis and the need for action. In response to the Dearing report he made the difficult decision that students must contribute to tuition costs."

But she added that the same students must benefit directly from their contribution. "Without the guarantee of this additional income going back into higher education, universities will be unable to maintain quality, expand numbers and perform top-level research. It is essential that the comprehensive spending review delivers the necessary public investment to address the short-term funding gap identified by Lord Dearing."

The CVCP, she said, is also concerned at the "information vacuum surrounding the government's funding reforms".


For Douglas Trainer, outgoing president of the National Union of Students, Labour's first year in power has proved "a mixed bag".

He believes David Blunkett is more serious about widening access than any of his predecessors. On many minor issues where the NUS has experience, it has felt able to influence policy. In the first year of his presidency, under the Conservatives, Mr Trainer had two meetings programmed with then education secretary Gillian Shephard, neither of which went ahead. By contrast, he has met present incumbent David Blunkett several times over the past year.

For students the issue dominating the year has been tuition fees, and they are disappointed at the way this was handled by ministers. "One of our major complaints is they just haven't listened. The first demonstration of that was their instant reaction to Dearing rather than listening to what all the stakeholders had to say. The government agenda has been very much 'this is the policy, what are your comments?'."

The six ex-NUS presidents who are now Labour MPs "have not been as helpful as the student movement would have wanted".

Association of Colleges

The AoC believes that Labour's first year has been a positive one for further education. "There's a new atmosphere in the sector, hope for a better future, which comes in part from having a secretary of state and ministers who understand further education and who relate to the needs of the people it serves," said Sue Dutton, acting chief executive of the AoC.

The lifelong learning policy, the New Deal, the University for Industry and Individual Learning Accounts, the expansion of sub-degree work and plans to place many of the extra 500,000 students in further education have all been welcomed.

"However, there is an irreducible funding level," said Ms Dutton. "We estimate that 60 per cent of colleges have some level of financial problem, which seriously affects the level and quality of provision."


Paul Mackney, director general of lecturers' union Natfhe, said his message to Labour is "money, money, money".

"We welcome the government's vision of the learning society where people are encouraged and expected to develop their skills and to maximise their potential. But if the vision is really going to work, there have to be substantial sums of money allocated to core services, not just the new initiatives."

He has reservations about the New Deal. "The New Deal is meant to bring the dignity of the wage packet to a disenfranchised group. But if these people's introduction to that is from lecturers on fixed term contracts, employed through agencies, denied basic employment rights, then the New Deal has a contradiction at its heart.

"I am also unhappy about tuition fees. If the argument is that students will earn more - why not tax them once they have earned more."

David Triesman, general secretary of the AUT, said Labour's first year "had raised more questions than answers". He said that professional staff are being asked once again to settle for a pay cut. "The government has yet to show in any significant way that it values those who created stunning growth in opportunity and who are losing patience as they await evidence."

And if the money from tuition fees went to further and not higher education he predicted trouble. "The political cost of this manoeuvre will, I predict, be savage among those who will feel and have been misled," he said.

Elaine Harrison, Unison head of higher education, said: "We hope some major inequities faced by our members will now be tackled."

Research councils

The research councils have taken some comfort from science minister John Battle's enthusiasm. Ian Halliday, the new chief executive of the Particle Physics and Asronomy Research Council, said: "The expectations of the community have clearly been raised. But I am slightly nervous that they have been raised too much."

Richard Brook, chief executive of the Engineering and Physical Science Research Council, said: "The government has sustained the current position in science. The disadvantages for science are the current drop in resources. The CSR is a potential remedy."

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