...and Blackstone explains

July 25, 1997

IT WAS left to higher and further education minister Baroness Blackstone to fill in the details and justify the Government's controversial departure on funding from the Dearing report.

The baroness, who has firsthand experience of higher education as the former master of London University's Birkbeck College, explained the thinking behind the calculations which produced the Pounds 1.7 billion deal for higher education.

Baroness Blackstone repeatedly stressed that the new system would be fairer to students and their parents regardless of income. Fairness, she said, is "fundamental" to the scheme, both for the poor and the wealthy.

She said: "We are helping the student from the low-income family by giving them a larger loan up front so they pay nothing up front. The principle is that they will only pay according to their income later.

"While we intend to introduce a tuition fee of Pounds 1,000 a year, full-time students will have access to extra loans for the maintenance equivalent to the additional cost of fees. In other words the parent who will have to pay a tuition fee will have to pay a reduced amount in maintenance."

There have been claims that the middle classes will benefit from this arrangement by effectively being able to spread the cost of the tuition fee over a long, low interest loan repayment period. Baroness Blackstone refutes this.

She said: "I do not think this will be perceived as a middle-class perk. I think it will be perceived as reasonable that middle-class parents pay up front."

The baroness was equally anxious to play down claims that the Government scheme is at odds with Sir Ron's preferred funding option.

"Basically, what we are saying is very much in line with what Sir Ron is saying. We accept all the principles that lie behind his funding option and we build on those," she said.

"Sir Ron thinks the present loan system is unfair and he doesn't think it works very well. We share that view. He argues that loans should be paid back over a longer period of time to help poorer students. We agree with him. He argues that parents should not be asked for higher contributions than at present. We agree with him. He suggested that a Pounds 1,000 tuition fee should be added to the loan. We agree with him except that we do not think that it would be right that students from lower income homes should be charged a tuition fee paid up front.

"So what we are doing is accepting the broad principles set out by Dearing but we think that the right approach is not to ask low-income students to pay because we are worried about the potential deterrent effect of that.

"Our view is that the psychological impact on these students of having to pay tuition costs will be more difficult to accept initially than simply extending a principle which has already been accepted, which is that you pay for your maintenance."

Baroness Blackstone, who referred to the Government's scheme as a "modification" of Dearing, said that the paying of fees up front would bring money into the higher education sector far more quickly than putting it all through a loan to be repaid later.

She was sensitive to criticisms that institutions which have more students from poorer families would potentially receive little from these up-front tuition fees.

"The funding council will have to compensate. You can't possibly leave those institutions that have a high proportion of low-income students without funding and those with rich students with more funding.

"If we accept the same schedule for repayments as Dearing, the Government modification of the Dearing proposal will, by the year 2015, bring in more money, around Pounds 1.7 billion. And between now and then it will bring in the same amount.

"Universities are going to benefit from these savings and it is very much a part of our policy commitment to provide for our policy aims which are to extend opportunities and improve quality and access. The money will be paid to the universities."

Baroness Blackstone said that the funding component would be enacted before the bulk of the Dearing recommendations were considered for legislation.

The Government is consulting with the stakeholders. The consultation deadline has been set for October 6.

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