Student grants are to be reintroduced in England and Wales, prompting claims of a government U-turn that leaves its undergraduate support policy in tatters, writes Alan Thomson.
Education secretary David Blunkett announced on Tuesday that means-tested annual bursaries of up to Pounds 1,000 would be available for mature students from autumn and for young, disadvantaged students the following year. They are part of a package, costing Pounds 68 million in 2000-01, to come from the existing education budget.
Opposition parties said the announcement was tacit admission that scrapping grants and introducing fees have done little to widen participation among the poor and, in the case of mature students, may have been a deterrent.
Shadow education secretary Theresa May said: "The government did not think through properly its student funding policies. Rather than introducing these compromises, Mr Blunkett should go back to the drawing board."
The government's problems have been compounded by the Cubie committee findings, which recommended the reintroduction of grants for the poorest students and the scrapping of up-front fees.
Mr Blunkett rushed out the new package when he learned that the Scottish Executive's response to Cubie included the abolition of upfront fees and reintroduction of annual grants of up to Pounds 2,000.
Liberal Democrat education spokesman Phil Willis said: "Two and a half years after Dearing, the government's policy on student support is in tatters"
Andrew Pakes, president of the National Union of Students, said: "The new measures are both a response to Cubie and an acknowledgement that the current package is not widening access."
Mr Blunkett attempted to ride out the storm, saying: "I gave a commitment to parliament that I would monitor the new student support arrangements, in particular their impact on mature students. I have decided to bring forward my conclusions to coincide with the response of the Scottish Executive to the Cubie inquiry."
English and Welsh universities will administer the bursaries with funding from the Higher Education Funding Councils for England and Wales. From 2001-02 mature students will be eligible for a bursary or a childcare grant of up to Pounds 100 a week and can earn up to Pounds 7,500 a year. The earnings limit is Pounds 820. The parental income threshold for paying fees will rise from Pounds 17,000 to Pounds 20,000.
David Blunkett, page 18
Andrew Pakes, page 20