Leader: Brown must get in on the Act

July 9, 2004

After all the histrionics of last winter and spring, the Higher Education Bill became an Act with barely a whimper. Even the Lords'

rebellions produced only a gap year concession that will cost the Government nothing, although ministers' own amendments on the Office for Fair Access and their promises on part-time students may prove significant in the long term.

In the sparsely attended final debate in the Commons, it was hard to believe that this was the legislation on which Tony Blair staked (and almost lost) his premiership. The conspicuous absence of some of those expressing most outrage in January suggested that the cliffhanger had more to do with politics than higher education. For those in universities and colleges, however, the Act heralds an historic shift. The introduction of top-up fees and the establishment of Offa will change the relationship with students and increase external interference. The market may be more limited than its supporters would wish, but even in this form no one can be sure of its impact.

The optimistic view is that fee income will improve university finances - even the Government does not claim it will close the funding gap - without damaging moves to broaden intakes. Next week's spending review will be the first test of that, as the Treasury lays out its plans for the start of the top-up era. Charles Clarke admitted this week that the division of education funds was already proving difficult. We may have to wait to see how the Chancellor intends to fulfil his pledge to maintain funding per student as higher education expands, but the figures cannot be hidden indefinitely.

By next week we may also finally know the Tory alternative. Since the party's pledges to match Labour spending plans pointedly cover schools and hospitals only, the omens are not good for higher education. But at least the fog that has surrounded the post-election landscape will begin to clear. However contentious both parties' plans may be, universities and colleges will know what to expect two years hence. The Act sets higher education on a course that the majority of academics oppose, but they must hope that Mr Clarke is right when he claims it will secure the future of their institutions.

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