Leader: Lack of foreplay could sink fees

December 12, 2003

While Tony Blair and Charles Clarke wrestle with potentially the biggest backbench revolt in decades, Australian education minister Brendan Nelson has proved that it is possible to convince sceptical politicians that variable top-up fees are politically acceptable.

Months of hard lobbying have won round the four independent senators whose votes stood between Dr Nelson and the reforms to which he had nailed his political reputation. As a result, universities will gain A$2.4 billion (£1 billion) while promising more publicly funded places.

Vice-chancellors who had criticised many aspects of the package quickly welcomed the financial lifeline that it promised for their universities.

Over a decade, Australia's pioneering Higher Education Contributions Scheme (Hecs) has become an international byword for the least worse way of reconciling graduates' contribution towards the cost of their degrees with a flexible and manageable repayment regime. Its evenhandedness and apparent success in fuelling expansion has been seized on by a number of other countries. Lord Dearing was certainly impressed when he visited Australia before his 1997 report was filleted by the incoming Labour government.

But Dr Nelson's Hecs is the mark III version, a departure from the scheme's initial egalitarianism in order to free up the fees market. Britain is now steaming full ahead to the full-blown 2004-style Hecs without passing through the softening-up stage that sold a university education largely free at the point of delivery to the Australian middle classes.

In achieving his victory, Dr Nelson was forced to make a clutch of concessions, as Blair and Clarke must do if they are to head off the revolt on Labour's back benches. But he went into his battle with a wide package of reforms that left plenty of scope to shed controversial proposals without diluting his central ambition. And he had only four votes to turn, not 150.

Blair and Clarke, by contrast, have much less wiggle room, especially after the "no surrender" rhetoric from No 10.

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