Leader: Tidings of great angst make for a bleak midwinter

December 21, 2000

This is the last edition of The THES this year and indeed, according to purists, this millennium. To set the scene for the next decade, if not the next 1,000 years, this issue includes our second Millennium Magazine . Last year's looked back over 1,000 years of intellectual history, a time when universities as we know them came into being and when understanding of the natural world accelerated. This time we look forward to the moral and ethical dilemmas accelerating knowledge brings.

Meanwhile, the year 2000 is ending somewhat bleakly. In the United States, president-elect George Bush is not expected to be a friend to environmental campaigners or researchers into the more contentious areas of biology, though the weapons scientists may see their star rise again. Extra spending on students will most likely be through tax breaks, which mainly benefit the rich. And many will remember with alarm the traditionalist reign of vice-president elect Dick Cheney's wife, Lynne, at the National Endowment for the Humanities. But Mr Bush's scope for action may be constrained by a dodgy mandate, an evenly split Congress and an evidently politicised Supreme Court.

In England and Wales, midwinter is bleak for other reasons. The evidence shows that student debt is deterring enrolment in higher education by just those groups the government hopes to encourage. Claire Callender and Martin Kemp's careful study of student finance, which has survived attempts by those in the Department for Education and Employment, who commissioned it to blunt its edge, shows how the cost of higher education was already impacting on students, particularly the poorest, before grants ended.

The situation is outrageous. The government says access is its priority and is pillorying universities for failing to attract students from poorer homes while it is itself responsible for introducing policies that put off those students, in haste and against the considered advice of the Dearing committee (which changed its view in the light of the evidence). In the past, expansion assisted the enrolment of less-privileged groups - ethnic minorities and women above all, but also those from poorer schools and homes.

This time expansion is producing empty places: the price for the poor is too high. It is no good the government protesting that poor students do not have to pay fees. Fees are not the problem. If ministers had done as advised, everyone would pay towards tuition- as in Scotland - out of subsequent earnings. The problem is living costs. And that problem is worst for those with least, as Callender and Kemp show.

It is no good claiming that restoring grants costs too much (£500 million is the figure quoted by ministers) and that other areas of education must come first. If it were a straight trade-off between nursery schools, secondary schools and student grants, they might have a case, but it is not. We read every day of obscene bonuses in the City; of company directors receiving six-figure pay-offs; of the price of a family house in central London exceeding £1 million; of growing numbers of the rich. All of these expect to send their children to university. For them £1,050 a year is a bargain. They could pay three or four times as much. It would still be cheap compared with private school fees and would provide enough cash for grants.

Ministers in England and Wales have been patching their scheme with piecemeal remedies but the inadequacy of these are shown up by Northern Ireland's higher education minister Sean Farren's admirable decision this week to restore grants for students while resisting pressure to abolish fees. Here is a minister who can spot a regressive policy when he sees it. If there is little on the government's table for poor students in England and Wales this Christmas, at least for Northern Ireland's students things can only get better.

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