Leader: Top-up fees look like the only game in town

November 8, 2002

For a master politician skilled at evading the question, Tony Blair has barely disguised his intentions on top-up fees in the fortnight since they shot up the political agenda. While refusing to give a straight answer in advance of the higher education strategy paper, every qualification of that refusal has pointed to students or their parents paying more for tuition.

Take this week's Downing Street press conference, at which Mr Blair declared a consensus on four "key areas": that universities are underfunded; that they require more independence from government; that access for poor students should be improved; and that no financial barriers should prevent them taking up places. The admission that higher education needs more money will have cheered supporters and opponents of fees alike, but the telling point was the stipulation that universities should have more freedom. This was thinly veiled code for passing on the responsibility for providing most of the extra resources, either through fees or graduate contributions.

The most likely outcome is a combination of the two, on the Australian model. Universities would be free to make graduates meet a bigger share of the costs of education, with discounts for those paying in advance. But there is little sign of Mr Blair dropping the principle of allowing universities to set fees, however unpopular this might be with the middle class he normally woos so assiduously. He appears to have confirmed as much to Estelle Morris, and no doubt agreed a brief with Charles Clarke before appointing him to replace her.

What is lacking in the debate is a politically realistic alternative. Assuming it was not retrospective, a graduate tax would take the better part of two decades to produce any money, and even the most determined opponents of top-up fees do not pretend that the Treasury will pay all the bills in the meantime. Parents are beginning to be concerned about the state of universities but do not want to pay for their upgrading. Universities are in little doubt about which way the wind is blowing. Our survey shows that it is not just the elite that expects to be charging more, however reluctantly. The delay in the strategy paper has offered a last chance for opponents of top-up fees to present a better way of addressing Mr Blair's four key issues. But he will take some convincing.

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