Leader: Better late than never for debate

September 10, 2004

Next week's annual meeting of Universities UK should have been a quiet affair -the calm before the storm, perhaps, with vice-chancellors celebrating good news from the spending review and keeping their fee cards close to their chests. Instead, there is a Cabinet reshuffle, which is likely to deprive universities of an effective champion; a Tory blueprint that may divide the sector; and (by the time they meet) an admissions review that is bound to be controversial. The silly season is well and truly over.

The Conservative plans are easily dismissed as cynical and elitist: rich individuals and institutions are likely to get richer while the poor get poorer. At the extreme, students who are wholly supported by parents will pay nothing. Although some grants would be retained, serious attempts to widen the social compass of higher education would go out of the window with the 50 per cent participation target. But the scheme is well judged politically for a party looking to reconnect with its traditional middle-class support and it will hold attractions for many in higher education.

The main selling point for academics is the reduction in bureaucracy: the new access regulator would be short-lived and funding council powers drastically reduced. In some universities, state supplements for endowments will also be significant. But with the market would come increased risk for institutions that struggle to fill places. While unpopular fees would disappear, higher interest rates on loans would dispel any illusion of a return to "free" higher education. For many graduates the difference in monthly repayments would be marginal.

However, as long as the Tories can show that their sums add up, their scheme should be acknowledged as a realistic alternative to top-up fees.

Higher interest rates, after all, were only discounted as an element of the Government's plans on the day before the White Paper was published. The pity is that the proposals were not produced in time to influence the debate in Parliament. What they will do in the short term is to place added pressure on ministers to demonstrate that top-up fee income will be genuinely additional. If next week's announcement of the division of education spending does not meet that test, the Tory alternative may have more backing within UUK than the pundits expect.

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