Letter: Dearing, do... (1)

October 12, 2001

The government's rethink of student support is a welcome return to the recommendations of the 1997 Dearing report ("Student cash in melting pot", THES , October 5).

The criteria we used were that any system should: encourage broad participation; require the better-off to make some contribution; equalise the costs of part/full-time, continuous/discontinuous further/higher education; and be cost-effective.

The previous government's solution failed on the first count and, thus, on the last.

We considered a graduate tax that passed all the criteria but had the disadvantages of being open-ended and offering no mechanism for choosing to pay up-front.

The preferred alternative was a "deferred contribution" that was not linked to a loan or debt but to a "maximum contribution". At the point of consumption, a student would agree to contribute a given percentage of income (above a fixed level), related to the amount of tuition, for a maximum number of years. This option matches all the criteria but fails to produce additional income in the short term. It was recommended for consideration in the medium term.

It would now be timely to return to those analyses and criteria, especially the third one. The demands for higher study are for a wider range of mixed mode offerings that lifelong learners can adapt to their individual circumstances. That includes 18 to 21-year-olds, who form the Open University's fastest-growing age-group.

Students want to be able to move easily around the system. An equalising form of the "deferred contribution" offers that potential.

Diana Laurillard
Pro vice-chancellor (learning technologies and teaching),
the Open University

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