Leader: Sugared pill still hard to swallow

January 9, 2004

Time will tell whether the student-support package announced with this week's higher education bill is sufficient to win over enough Labour "rebels". None of them has done any rebelling yet, and the early-day motion that caused such panic in Whitehall does not threaten any.

It merely calls for debate on alternatives to variable top-up fees.

But there is no doubt that the whole concept of a market in higher education remains unpopular on Labour's back benches, and many MPs will have to swallow hard before supporting the bill. The early signs are that the latest concessions, ministers' intensive round of explanation and cajoling, not to mention the politician's instinct for self-preservation, will enable the legislation to squeeze through. But the sheer variety of objections makes it difficult to be sure.

The clinching factor ought to be the size of the grants available to students from poor homes, since they are the stated source of concern for most of the EDM signatories. They will have less to pay as students and more to live on under the new system, fee instalments will begin only when they earn reasonable salaries and any outstanding debt will be written off after 25 years. The losers will be those from middle-income homes, though even they will no longer face upfront fees. For Labour MPs in marginal constituencies, they may be the real concern, but they are harder to portray as a cause célèbre .

There will be no placating those whose objection is to the principle of variable fees, especially if their real interest is in toppling prime minister Tony Blair. Safeguards against uncontrolled fee hikes after the next Parliament might reassure some, but there is no hiding the fact that in the long term some universities and some subjects will command more of a premium than others. Intervention will be needed to ensure that the market does not override the national (or regional) interests, but delicate balances will have to be struck in tampering with even such a limited market as this.

Beyond Westminster, the Russell Group and the Coalition of Modern Universities will both feel they have won important victories, even if neither is jumping for joy. Much will depend on whether the Office for Fair Access chooses to bare its teeth, but universities at both ends of the access spectrum should now keep more of their fee income than they had been led to expect. It has always been clear that with higher fees would come some element of bursary funding. Many in higher education would prefer free tuition to have been maintained, but the eventual compromise will safeguard the future of universities to a greater extent than the likely alternatives.

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