Leader: Ease the 2005 squeeze

April 16, 2004

Ministers thought long and hard about ways to mitigate the effects of the introduction of top-up fees on those starting courses in 2005. Whatever they say now about prospective gap-year students going ahead with their plans after weighing up the advantages of the grants and bursaries available the following year, minimal research will confirm that their wishful thinking accounts for a small minority. It is easy to see why: with the current fee regime being abolished for all full-time students in 2006, next year's entrants will pay only a single year's tuition upfront and then owe £6,700 less for a standard degree than those who defer.

Admissions officers are bracing themselves for the predictable stampede for places next year and preparing to adjust their offers accordingly. The government will have to brace itself for the equally inevitable crash in applications for 2006. Presumably, once the other concessions linked to the higher education bill had been paid for, there was no money left to facilitate a smooth transition to the new system.

Labour may pay in votes if the election coincides with a rejection rate unprecedented in recent times. And it will deserve to do so because the likely boom and bust of the next two years will be socially inequitable: those who can afford the extra fees will be able to buy themselves a much easier ride in 2006. Far from releasing more places, Charles Clarke has said he would be "concerned" if current plans were exceeded. If he is serious about widening participation, that is just what should happen.

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