Leader: We can move ahead now, but we cannot relax

January 30, 2004

Tuesday's nerve-jangling vote was too close for ministers to be sure of getting their bill through Parliament, even now. Undoubtedly, there will be further ambushes to come in committee and in the House of Lords, and there may yet be at least one more cliffhanger in the Commons. But the likelihood is that historic change is on the way for higher education. It goes without saying that there are aspects of that change that alarm academics and students alike. They fear that divisions will be exacerbated between both institutions and students of different backgrounds for the sake of an illusory funding boost. Others see the concessions made to win over rebel backbenchers neutering the bill and postponing indefinitely the onset of a true market in higher education.

The last-minute horse-trading that now seems to accompany every contentious measure ensures that virtually no legislation emerges as its originators intended. Last year's higher education white paper was a classic example, with fundamental elements of the package (the cap on fees and the interest rate on loans) changing within two days of publication. But those whose concerns are for equity as well as quality should not find the late concessions on the higher education bill unwelcome. If, as Alan Johnson, the higher education minister, disclosed in Tuesday's debate, most will be funded from new money from the Treasury, they should help students from poor homes without reducing the benefits for universities.

In particular, the conversion of fee waivers into grants completes a transformation of student support that comes close to the model proposed (and wrongly rejected) more than six years ago in the Dearing report. The struggle to make the full support package equal to the maximum top-up fee was always a diversion, presumably designed to appeal to Labour MPs. In reality, no needy student is going to bank a grant as a hedge against gradual fee repayments several years hence. Neither was it logical to vary fees according to family background when repayments will be linked to graduates' income. The new proposals may have been born of haggling and compromise, but the extra millions will help poor students when they need it. To that extent, the new system will make it easier for such students to embark on higher education. Debt aversion may be a serious obstacle to widening access - the evidence is not clear cut -but there should be no doubt about the impact of abolishing upfront fees. There was an immediate effect on applications in Scotland, even without grants of the sort now promised in England.

Ministers' further guarantees that the £3,000 fees ceiling would not rise in real terms before 2010 may have reassured those who fear that variability will lead to Ivy League charges, but they made no difference of substance. The same assurance appeared in the white paper a year ago.

Indeed, the 2009 review demanded and won by the Labour rebels may make it more likely that the cap is lifted. As the Dearing review demonstrated, it is far easier for governments to take politically awkward decisions in such circumstances.

All sides will find shortcomings in the bill, and there will be battles ahead over the Office for Fair Access in particular (page 1). But it is the best settlement available to higher education for the medium term. No one can prevent some future government neutralising the gains from fee income or reducing student support, but commitments have been made for the years ahead. Of course, serious financial problems remain in universities, but top-up fees will help to address them without placing an unreasonable burden on graduates. The challenge for lobby groups will be to keep higher education among the government's priorities when other apparently more pressing claims are made on the public purse.

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