Leader: Cold winds affect efforts to reform student support

October 12, 2001

Recession can be good for education, making studying and teaching seem relatively attractive as the cold wind blows. The last recession drove substantial expansion in further and higher education, and when growth resumed, there was a pool of well-educated people to damp the inflationary pressure of skill shortages. The same could happen again. The government has increased participation targets and has at last shown willingness to reform a student-support system that, it is now accepted, is putting off target groups.

But now there is war. Wars can benefit universities - Jnot in terms of their teaching function nor in terms of attracting international students as visa restrictions are tightened, but in terms of research. Wars boost technological advance. The war against terrorism, which we are told will be long, will be no exception. It will be waged with high-tech kit to avoid high human casualties.

But it will be expensive. And the cost comes on top of likely increases in the social security budget arising from job losses; the continuing cost of the foot-and-mouth epidemic; and now the expense of renationalising the rail network. Firm promises have been made to schools and to the National Health Service, and implied promises - their exact nature still unclear - have been made to students and their families.

It would be better not to start from here. The present student-support system was known to be flawed when it was introduced in 1997. Obstinate refusal to reform it in the fat times means that it is now going to be extremely difficult for education ministers to prise out of the Treasury the necessary cash - about £400 million a year to replace upfront fees plus as much again to provide a more effective bursary system. Careful thought will be needed to ensure that any new system does not encourage students to enrol in institutions too impoverished to cope. Recent pronouncements on how new student-support packages might work look like shooting from the hip.

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