Only after the risk of alienating voters has passed have Scotland's Labour politicians and university leaders begun to point out the disadvantages of abolishing tuition fees.
There are the anomalies that will arise if fee regimes north and south of the border diverge further. There is the regressive nature of a policy that would put tens of millions of pounds into the pockets of the richest and most privileged families in Scotland. And, unless the loss is made up from the public purse, universities would be seriously impoverished just as the issue of salaries comes to a head.
As The THES went to press, it looked likely that a snap decision would be avoided in favour of a review over the summer. This would provide the opportunity to debate important issues that have so far been neglected and would provide a fine example of the more deliberative approach promised for the much vaunted "new politics". Those now lobbying against abolition should not despair. Their case is good.
Abolishing fees would be a middle-class perk. It would not contribute to the quality of university education. It would simply make the richest families better off while the poorest get nothing. Only 30 per cent pay fees in full. Another 30 per cent pay only part of the Pounds 1,025 charge,while 40 per cent do not pay. Higher education cannot afford to lose this income. More money is needed to expand provision, improve infrastructure and raise salaries. The Bett committee is about to publish a report revealing the extent to which pay is now uncompetitive. Scotland's universities certainly could not afford to be forced by penury to lag behind universities elsewhere in the United Kingdom in improving salaries.
When it comes to consider the matter in detail, will the Scottish Parliament really want to devote some Pounds 46 million in 2001-02 just to making up the fee gap, when the money could be so much better used improving the service, or investing in early education and further education, where the returns to society from preventing failure are shown by study after study to be the greatest?
Scotland's politicians can hardly expect that the cost will be met by Westminster. Already there are murmurings from MPs and regional development agencies in the poorer parts of England at the higher levels of public subsidy enjoyed by Scotland. Nor will the chancellor be willing to contemplate re-introducing free tuition across the United Kingdom. He is more likely to take note of the warnings the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development has just issued to the Irish government (front page): free tuition for the affluent classes fuels inflation. Reductions in interest rates as a result of low inflation are popular. He will not want to put either at risk.
A review can provide a useful excuse for a general rethink. Labour made a mistake two years ago when it decided to reject Lord Dearing's recommendation that maintenance grants should be retained when tuition fees were introduced. Evidence is building up that this decision, while it has had little effect on applications to higher education from school-leavers, is having a deterrent effect on potential mature students.
Everyone, in all parts of the United Kingdom, could gain from a review two years on of the whole issue of student contributions and support. Perhaps Lord Dearing himself might even be persuaded to turn his mind to the matter. He could be quickly up to speed.
As chairman of the University for Industry he has a vested interest in seeing that higher education does not run off with money needed for further education. And anyway, he got it mostly right two years ago.