Leader: Promise must be kept

March 26, 2004

When even the prime minister acknowledges an £8 billion funding gap in higher education, it may seem craven to celebrate a budget that guarantees no more than a standstill in state funding per student. But, with demographic growth and government policy both pointing to significant expansion, maintaining the unit of resource without raiding universities'

income from top-up fees would be no mean feat. The challenge will be to ensure that the chancellor's promise is kept when large sums are needed to fund the pledges made in the course of debate on the higher education bill.

Most notably, the conversion of fee waivers into student grants will trim £160 million off higher education spending somewhere.

Much of the £8 billion shortfall is in capital projects, which are still to play for in July's spending review. Tough talking remains to be done on this part of the higher education budget, as it does on the future of initiatives that could be sacrificed to pay for the bill's concessions.

But at least the university system should be assured of benefiting fully from top-up fees, at least in their early years. That may help to persuade wavering MPs when the bill faces its next crunch moment next week.

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