Leader: The public won't buy it if it doesn't look like it's fair

May 4, 2001

A substantial majority of the British public would like to see student grants restored across the United Kingdom as they are being in Scotland. They also share the Cubie committee's view, since acted on in Scotland, that tuition fees are likely to put people off applying to university. No surprise there. These were leading questions, framed not to explore reaction in depth, but to get a quick fix on the public's view of the twin planks of the Labour government's higher education policy with regard to students.

Next week we will compare these views with those of academics to see how far apart public and professional opinions are. Where the general public is concerned, these are not, as Anthony Barker says, issues that will top people's list when they come to vote. Nonetheless, the Labour Party should be aware that it has a presentation problem here; that this problem has not gone away for all ministers' resolute determination to make it do so; and that continued refusal to look dispassionately at the evidence is threatening other policies for access, expansion and up-skilling the population. Student application and enrolment figures are not good news for a government that set out to attract an additional 100,000 students by next year, particularly at sub-degree level.

Reluctance to address the issue is understandable. Having taken a stand and braved the incoming fire, the government, or at least the present education ministers, need to believe they were right. In many ways they were. The previous subsidies for higher education were grossly regressive, pouring taxpayers' money into the hands of the richest or soon to be richest half of the population. But slugging it out in the trenches in support of the specifics of an unpopular policy is not clever tactics. The system needs to be more evidently fair before the public will accept it as such.

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