Budget leaves no choice but charges

July 4, 1997

Despite fierce warnings, more money was found this week for education - but not a brass farthing for higher education. The Chancellor, Gordon Brown, has relented on his stipulation that all spending must be balanced by savings elsewhere in departmental budgets. Money from the windfall tax is to be augmented by substantial slugs of extra money from the contingency reserve for education, employment and health.

Schools will not therefore have to wait for the rather meagre proceeds of phasing out the assisted places scheme nor for a slow reduction in welfare spending as welfare-to-work schemes bite into unemployment. This was never going to be enough. At least now spending on schools will not have to be paid for by raiding higher education.

For the rest, the Budget is deeply disappointing. There is no mention of extra money for further education despite Helena Kennedy's passionately-argued case for priority, though colleges will gain from the education elements of the welfare-to-work package and from the childcare training initiative. Unlike schools, there was no mention of help to improve colleges' buildings and equipment.

For higher education it is worse. Though the Kennedy raiding party has been seen off, there is nothing to ease the dire situation of universities and colleges. Higher education simply does not feature in the Government's priorities. There is not even mention of selling student debt, which had been seen until quite recently as a source of short-term money to bridge the gap until funding could be reformed in the wake of the Dearing report.

With no new money for next year and, with no spending review this autumn, the grim plans published in the autumn of 1996 still stand. The English funding council's grant is set to fall by Pounds 36 million next year (1998/99) and a further Pounds 84 million in the following year and that is in cash terms. With inflation predicted at 2.5 per cent this year and 2.75 per cent next year and student numbers expected to rise, this means serious cuts in real terms. This Budget's message is that the Government does not care about higher education and, if it is to survive at any decent level of quality, there there is now no choice but to charge students - and that before 1999/2000.

This is the more urgent because this week's extra spending for schools and health comes from one-off sources - the contingency reserve and the windfall tax respectively. Mr Brown now has to find a way to sustain higher spending on these services long term.This week shows that higher education has lost the argument for more of the "peoples' money".

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