An autumn white paper is a sensible way to address the interlinked problems of student support and higher education funding. Why ministers ever thought they could be resolved separately is a mystery.
But that does not mean that universities or their students will like the eventual outcome: there will be a temptation to arrive at a classic British fudge to the displeasure of both. Education secretary Estelle Morris rightly concludes that she has been left to pick up the pieces of long-term underinvestment. With top-up fees ruled out in this Parliament, her proposals will be among the first battlegrounds for the next election. Universities have a strong case for public investment, but hospitals are a greater political imperative. Students are the obvious alternative source of revenue, but they and their predominantly middle-class families are voters whose support will be needed.
By airing the issues now, the government is taking the political temperature in good time. As Ms Morris says, the fact that we are having the debate represents some progress, although she is reluctant to admit that the logical conclusion of her analysis is that top-up fees are on the way. As in 1997, the politician's instinct will surely be to set the precedent but limit electoral damage by starting charges off relatively low.