Bill Rammell: Why we are winning the political argument

February 17, 2006

Ideological opponents of variable fees claimed the new system would lead to a dramatic fall in student numbers and that fewer young people from working-class backgrounds would go to higher education. On both counts, this week's Universities and Colleges Admissions Service applications figures give a strong indication that they will be proved wrong.

On the back of last year's much larger than usual rise in applications, I always expected a small reduction this year. And that's what the January figures show. It's what happened when tuition fees first came in: a big increase in 1997 followed by a small reduction in 1998 whereafter the numbers applying to university continued upwards. It will very likely be the pattern this time - the number of applications from English students is appreciably higher than at the same stage in 2004.

Significantly, the January Ucas figures also show no reduction in the proportion of applications from lower socioeconomic groups. This positive picture on student numbers has not occurred by accident. While all the headlines about the new system have focused on fees, crucially we've ensured we deliver a much better and fairer system of student financial support.

And we put right the two mistakes we made when fees were first introduced in 1998. It was a mistake to ask students to pay fees before they went to university, and it was a mistake to end student grants. Both errors have been corrected in the new system.

The new student financial support system rightly targets the greatest support at poor students. But there has always been a danger that the "noise" of ideological opposition from the better-off, who resent making a contribution to pay for the benefits of the higher education they receive, would cloud the issue, that it would impede the message getting through to poor students that the new system is better, fairer and more affordable.

That's why in my first days as Higher Education Minister I decided we needed a major communications campaign. The results are encouraging.

Initial evaluation shows that on the key issue of students no longer having to pay upfront fees, awareness has shot up from 67 per cent to 84 per cent.

We are also winning the political argument that it's right and fair that students pay towards their tuition in return for the benefits and advantages it brings. The recent British Social Attitudes Survey shows that 77 per cent of people support the view that all or most students should pay tuition fees.

There are elements of the right-wing press who will always oppose the expansion of higher education. They attack the Government on two fronts: first, arguing that we dilute the benefit to the elite through expansion; second, opposing tuition fees, which, they argue, the state could afford if fewer people went to university. (Although David Cameron's Tories are "flip-flopping" on the issue as they are on most others.) I wholly reject this criticism. Expanding higher education is both a social and an economic imperative. A degree is still the key to a more comfortable, interesting life, and this Labour Government rightly wants that for as many of our fellow citizens as possible. This Government knows the value of higher education, to both the individual and society. We are rightly committed to expansion.

Bill Rammell is Higher Education Minister.

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