Over its 20 years of publication, the annual British Social Attitudes survey has proved an invaluable counter to the spin peddled by the government and opposition groups. But, as all sides in the increasingly rancorous debate on top-up fees claim public support for their positions, next week's report could hardly be more timely for higher education.
The shifts in opinion charted in this year's survey suggest a level of sophistication among the public that MPs would do well to emulate in the months ahead. It shows, for example, a consistent preference for grants over student loans for living costs - but limited to those from poorer backgrounds. Only about one-third thought that students should be spared all tuition fees, whether paid up front or after graduation. That proportion had been even lower in 2000 than in 2001.
Equally tellingly, however, the public appears increasingly convinced of higher education's case for greater state support. Although secondary education and special needs are seen as more urgent priorities, "students at university", as the survey unhelpfully categorises higher education, was closing on primary education in 2002. Significantly, too, given ministers' frequent contrasting of the two fields, universities are now seen as a higher priority than nursery and pre-school education. Throughout the first 17 years of the survey, the reverse was true.
It is impossible to be sure why such a change has taken place, but it may be that the public is taking account of the heavy investment in nursery education after Labour came to power in 1997. The abolition of nursery vouchers was the first act of the Blair government, to be followed by a popular (and successful) drive for universal pre-school education. Ministers' focus then switched to primary education before moving on to secondary schools. Logic would suggest that further and higher education should be next but, although spending on both is receiving a welcome boost, the backlog is immense.
Charles Clarke referred again this week to the disparity in spending between nursery education, at an estimated £1,500 per child, and the £5,000 a year bill for each higher education student, implying that the gap was too wide. But, unless there is new evidence to support a switch to much smaller nursery classes (which schools could neither accommodate nor staff), pre-school education is inherently much cheaper to deliver. The social impact of early years education is undoubtedly crucial to many of the government's ambitions but it does not follow that it is a more deserving case for extra support than an impoverished higher education system.
Even after the increases from the last comprehensive spending review, state funding for UK higher education will remain far behind the average among Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development countries. While the chancellor's purse strings will be drawn tight in the next review - let alone the one after that, when top-up fees should have been introduced - an exception should be made for universities. The time to begin loosening the strings is in the next month, when concessions will have to be made if the higher education bill is to stand a chance of success.
Some of the sweeteners lined up to placate the more malleable rebels should not be costly: by the time the freshers of 2006 have graduated, for example, average starting salaries are likely to be close to £20,000, so raising the repayment threshold for top-up fees would merely reflect reality. Similarly, a 25-year limit on repayments would be more symbolic than expensive since even graduates in quite modestly paid jobs would have long since cleared their debts. The more significant test of the chancellor's commitment will be seen in the government's attitude to grants. A more generous package would not only win over wavering MPs but, if the Social Attitudes survey is any guide, is what the public wants.