Blair bets all on wooing rebels

January 9, 2004

Could the HE bill be Labour's poll tax? The THES looks at its implications and assesses its chances

For the first time in history a UK prime minister has staked his premiership on higher education.

In what has been widely described as Tony Blair's "poll tax moment", he has repeatedly insisted that the higher education bill, published on Thursday, is a key plank of his reforms for the public services and that the success of his premiership will be judged on these reforms.

It is a high-risk strategy since almost 150 Labour backbenchers are opposed to variable top-up fees and could sink the bill. Everything hangs on the nature of the concessions made by the government in the student-support package announced alongside the bill.

But Mr Blair has been nothing if not confident, at least publicly. In his new year message, he described fees of £3,000 as fair and predicted that the rebellion against them would fail.

The tortuous passage of last January's higher education white paper to this January's bill has brought about ferocious debate on the future of higher education and of the Labour Party. Variable fees lie at the heart of the dispute.

Wendy Piatt, research fellow at the Institute of Public Policy Research and a former government adviser who argued in favour of variable top-up fees, said: "By introducing variable fees, the Blairite government is tackling the last nationalised industry in Britain.

"Universities were largely protected from the Thatcherite revolution and remained largely dependent on the state. The change to an autonomous market-led sector is radical. It also makes many people incredibly uneasy."

Michael Sterling, chair of the Russell Group and vice-chancellor of Birmingham University, said the debate had been healthy.

He said: "Not since the Robbins expansion of the 1960s has higher education received so much press and political attention. What has changed from when the Dearing report was published in 1997 is a general acceptance of the idea of a student contribution."

Lord Dearing's inquiry into higher education funding, set up with all-party support before the 1997 general election, set the ball rolling on fees. He recommended that all students pay a fee of £1,000 but said maintenance grants must be kept. Instead, education secretary at the time, David Blunkett, brought in means-tested fees and scrapped the grant.

Rattled by voter disapproval in the 2001 election campaign, Mr Blair promised a review of student funding at Labour's annual conference that year. The result, two and a half years on, is the bill.

Most will be glad that the bill will end upfront payment of fees, and those fighting for variables will be relieved to see they are still in the bill - albeit capped.

Andrew Adonis, former Oxford academic and Liberal Democrat, has been credited with persuading the prime minister to go for higher fees and the creation of a tier of elite research universities.

Economists Nicholas Barr and Iain Crawford of the London School of Economics argue that free higher education redistributes to the best-off.

Professor Barr said: "Graduates are crucial to the future economic prosperity of this country. A degree is not a middle-class luxury. We must expand higher education and students must contribute."

Those worried about the impact on access, such as Claire Callender of South Bank University, will be pleased to see the level of the grant.

The focus on funding must not obscure other aspects of the bill.

Universities UK has long pointed out the importance of the establishment of the Office of the Independent Adjudicator and the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

What most commentators are agreed on is that it will be disastrous for higher education if the bill fails. Mr Blair has made it plain that there is no plan B. Michael Driscoll, chair of the Coalition of Modern Universities and vice-chancellor of Middlesex University, said: "The devil will be in the detail. The government duped us last time by taking the amount we gained in fees straight out of the teaching grant. We will not be duped again."

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