ALARMING statistics that show an increased drop-out rate from university courses have coincided with the revelation from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service that there has been a 6 per cent fall in applications to higher education institutions. It does not take a genius to work out that the major reason for both of these developments is Labour's handling of the Dearing report and the resultant threat of tuition fees.
It is not so much the principle that students should be made to pay for higher education that has been the problem. It is the way that the issue has been handled. A party that prided itself on its ability to project a message when in opposition has conspicuously failed to do the same now that it is in power. It picked and chose from the Dearing report and has scared off thousands of students who would otherwise have gone to university but for the threat of Labour's plans for tuition fees.
Labour has sown the seeds of confusion and students throughout the country are left to reap the sorry harvest. Labour also did not think through the consequences of its actions. Having announced that it would accept the recommendations of the Dearing report it ignored those parts with which it disagreed.
Having attacked the Conservatives' record on student funding, one of Labour's first acts was to abolish the student grant and cut funding available for student maintenance. Having spent 18 years raging against the perceived unfairness that students should contribute to their own education, Labour has, with breathtaking hypocrisy, made sure that students now have to contribute more than they ever would have done under a Conservative government.
Labour will doubtless tell us to look at the broader picture. The cuts in single parent benefits should be looked at in the context of their plans for welfare reform (not yet available, but this should not detract from the supposed rightness of what they are doing - the promised land does not come without pain, Tony has warned us).
Yet how can a party that has had 18 years to think of what to do when it got back into power have mishandled the issue of higher education so appallingly? Did it really not think that announcing the funding changes in isolation would have no effect on student numbers? If it did not consider the ramifications of its policy, the charge is one of incompetence. If it did, but decided blindly to plough on, then the charge is one of irresponsibility too.
Looking at the broader picture, one can see that students are going to be hardest hit by a minimum wage. Businesses will be unable to afford to take on students part- time or during vacations, which means that students' CVs will be less full and rounded, making them less employable. Whereas graduates might have been offered employment at smaller firms and companies, those firms and companies are bound to suffer as the costs of a minimum wage impact on their profits and the money available to employ staff.
There is also a risk that 18- year-olds will take a job to be on the employment ladder, rather than studying for a degree and then not finding work afterwards. The picture for undergraduates has never looked bleaker.
If students are to be expected to pay for the privilege of a place at university they should be treated as consumers. They are entitled to be taught by lecturers who show some enthusiasm for teaching, not who believe that they are there primarily to do research and that students get in the way. They should have a far greater say over how they are taught. They should have genuine democratic control over their unions and of the National Union of Students. And, far from attacking the system of tutorials at Oxbridge, other higher education institutions should move towards this system themselves.
Universities may also wish to compete against each other by reducing the tuition fee payable by an undergraduate or by instituting more bursaries to help those from poorer backgrounds.
These are the types of reform that are needed in higher education as we enter the millennium.
The last Conservative government boasted that it increased opportunities for young people to go to university who, because of their backgrounds would never have had the chance, me being one. One in eight entering university became one in three after 1979. Universities are no longer the preserve of the few. They are diverse centres of excellence catering for the needs and interests of the many. Labour has managed to start to reverse the trend of increased student numbers and the nation will suffer as a result. Hopefully, Labour will suffer at the ballot box when students consider who has really been on their side all along - and it is not the Labour party.
Donal Blaney is national chairman of the Conservative Graduates, part of the Conservative party's youth wing.