Leader: Joinery showing signs of shoddy workmanship

February 21, 2003

What seemed a masterful piece of political joinery is looking more rickety as each day passes since the publication of the government's plans for higher education. From grants and fees to 6* research funding, the white paper seems less the coherent vision it was claimed to be and more a series of last-minute compromises, some of which have yet to be resolved.

What are we to make, for example, of the contrasting explanations of student grant eligibility even in the past week? At the education select committee, Margaret Hodge followed the white paper line that 30 per cent of undergraduates would get "some grant". Two days later she was telling the UK Council for Graduate Education that this proportion would qualify for the full £1,000. With perhaps only 7 per cent of students likely to satisfy the original means test for full grants, the difference amounts to many millions of pounds. Leaving aside most academics' strong objections to the further concentration of research funding that 6* departments would bring, there has been no clear direction either on how the beneficiaries should be selected. Ms Hodge suggested that assessment panels would be reconvened, but an insistence on instant implementation makes this impossible, even if they were willing.

Perhaps the most serious doubts for the sector as a whole must be over the impact of increased fees. The shift was proposed partly on the grounds that a degree from an elite university was worth more than one from a less prestigious institution. But, by limiting the fee to £3,000, ministers may have perpetuated an undifferentiated system and increased the cost to the exchequer in the early years of the scheme. If virtually all universities and some colleges charge full fees, can higher education be certain that the promise not to claw back income in the next comprehensive spending review will be kept?

It has emerged that the maximum fee was reduced from £5,000 in the week before the white paper was published and interest rates on student loans were being negotiated up to the last minute, while grant rates have changed even since then. All three have implications for the shape of higher education. Like the imposition of 6* funding, they must be the subject of genuine consultation if lasting damage is to be avoided.

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