Leader: Mean measures have damaged expansion plans

April 20, 2001

As we approach a general election, the issue of student poverty and debt is likely to be the one higher education issue that registers on the public's seismograph. Expansion and the introduction of fees and loans in place of grants have given millions of voters - students and their families - a direct personal interest in this area of policy.

The government feels astonishingly brave for having made this change. It is indeed astonishing that the move provoked so little protest and has had so little impact on participation. The message that it is worth going into debt to get a degree is clearly accepted. But getting away with it does not make the policy right.

Education department statistics show that the bill for student maintenance grants has been cut (in England and Wales) from more than £900 million in the last year before grants were halved and then abolished, to less than a tenth of that amount - £87 million - now. Ministers' determined rejection of growing evidence that the prospect of debt deters poorer students from going into higher education is becoming unsustainable. True, the numbers applying to higher education this year are up, but by a minute 0.8 per cent across the UK, including Scotland, where grants have been restored, and against a rising age cohort. This is not the government's planned expansion.

Present arrangements are too complicated; depend too much on grace and favour; and offer too little help to mature students with mortgages and families. The election offers a chance to shame ministers for passing off a raft of mean little measures as generous "targeted" programmes. Restoring the old grants system may be unrealistic: improving the present one is essential.

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