Leader: Compromise key to safe passage of education bill

November 28, 2003

The Queen made it all sound so simple: upfront fees will be abolished, more young people will be able to benefit from higher education and universities will be placed on a sound financial footing. Who could argue with that? Unfortunately for the government, today's early-day motion, fleshed out by our poll, confirms that many Labour backbenchers remain unconvinced, not about the objectives outlined in the Queen's Speech, but about the means chosen to achieve them. The same goes for those who work and study in higher education.

Some initial opponents of top-up fees have been won over as the scheme has been developed and explained, and plenty of the 120 MPs who have signed the latest EDM will vote with the government in the end. But it seems that there will have to be more concessions before ministers can be confident of victory. The question is: what will make sufficient difference to the doubters without alienating existing supporters and destroying the rationale for reform? And, given that any concession will cost money, what will the Treasury allow? The chancellor has been ominously silent on a measure that he never truly backed, and it must be likely that anything extra will come out of universities' pockets.

Perhaps the biggest problem for ministers is the sheer range of objections in Westminster and on campuses. As fast as they move to placate one lobby, other dissenters appear. Statutory guidelines on bursaries, for example, were meant to reassure the left of the Labour Party and even to appeal to new universities, which might otherwise have expected the proposed Office for Fair Access to require more than a third of fee income to go into student support. In the event, they face near-united opposition from universities, which are changing the minds of the very MPs who were supposed to be won over. Institutions with a high proportion of students from poor homes see another funding gap opening up as bursaries swallow up a disproportionate share of their fee income, while the rest resent further state interference and question the need to earmark such a large amount.

The government has rightly declined the bureaucratic nightmare of a scheme that redistributes fee income between universities, but the alternatives keep on coming. The latest proposal, from Peter Bradley and Alan Whitehead, has its attractions in substituting maintenance grants of up to £5,000 for the proposed combination of fee waivers, grants and bursaries.

But a flat-rate fee of £2,500 could be disastrous for some subjects and institutions, as well as making a mockery of the prime minister's concept of a market based on a recognition that some degrees are worth more than others.

Two years after ministers and civil servants began grappling with the intricacies of student funding, and ten months after the higher education white paper outlined the government's approach, it is astonishing that such fundamental questions are unresolved. There is no possibility that another week's negotiation will produce a solution that satisfies both the conflicting interests in the higher education system and those who remain convinced that top-up fees will increase social inequality, let alone MPs who simply see the measure as a betrayal of the manifesto on which they were elected.

The pity is that Lord Dearing's favoured combination of fees and grants was rejected in 1997. Even now, an extension of educational maintenance awards would make more sense than the hotchpotch of fee waivers and bursary schemes that is likely to emerge in the higher education bill next week.

But, at this late stage, and given the scale of the opposition, ministers will do whatever they think is feasible to get the legislation through.

With no sign of a funding boost from any other source, universities and colleges must hope that they succeed.

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