Leader: Whitehall gets a pat on back and a slap in the face

July 11, 2003

Ministers have long seen this week's select committee report as the first big hurdle in the implementation of their higher education plans. Academe was never going to like the separation of teaching and research, the profusion of initiatives or the reliance on top-up fees, but a cross-party group of MPs would validate some of those concerns in the public mind. The best hope for the government was that the committee would add a dose of political realism that would acknowledge the need for change in the face of competing claims on the public purse.

On the biggest question of all for Parliament and the public - the principle of graduates bearing a greater proportion of the costs of their education - ministers have their wish. But that is where the good news ends for Whitehall. On practically every detail of the funding regime, the MPs take issue with the logic of January's white paper, arguing for a £5,000 cap on fees, with the state paying the full cost of tuition for students from poor backgrounds. Market rates of interest on student loans would help fund much more generous maintenance grants. With a fair wind from the Treasury and spared the threat of a backbench revolution to dwarf this week's rebellion on foundation hospitals, Charles Clarke and his colleagues might take the committee's route. But they are convinced that no amount of mitigation would make higher top-up fees saleable to Labour critics. There may have to be concessions on grants and fee waivers, but they will be hard won at a time when the next spending review is already under way. The report is no more in tune with the white paper on other key areas, such as the concentration of research funding or the reliance on foundation degrees to meet expansion targets.

The MPs congratulate the government for "seeking to tackle some difficult issues" but question virtually all of the solutions. They call for plans for an access regulator to be scrapped along with those for Knowledge Exchanges, for honours courses to replace foundation degrees as the main engine of expansion, and for £21 million "taken" from departments with grade 4 ratings for research to be reinstated pending further decisions on assessment.

As a wish list for those who accept the need for fees with access safeguards but seek to minimise government intervention elsewhere, the committee's recommendations could hardly be bettered. But as a practical proposition, it will be surprising if many of the main proposals are reflected in this autumn's legislation. Most worrying for Mr Clarke is that the report comes from a committee with a clear majority of Labour members.

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