Call for reform pits students against staff

August 31, 2001

University chiefs this week pressed ministers to end confusion over student support as the select committee chairman warned that any U-turn must not be at the expense of staff.

Tony Bruce, director of policy at Universities UK, said the present system was problematic as there were too many parcels of money available for students. This caused confusion among students as to what support they were entitled to, he said.

Dr Bruce said: "There needs to be a rationalisation of the existing arrangements within a single bursary scheme. It may need more than repackaging. We will be pursuing it with the Department for Education and Skills."

The call came amid reports that prime minister Tony Blair has demanded a rethink on tuition fees and student grants. It follows Mr Blair's statement last month that he and education secretary Estelle Morris would look at student hardship.

Speaking at the Labour Party's National Policy Forum, Mr Blair said that student hardship, widely attributed to the government's decision to scrap grants and introduce fees, was the main complaint on the doorstep during the general election campaign.

But chancellor Gordon Brown is reported to oppose the reintroduction of grants and the abolition of fees as too expensive. Added to this, universities are nervous that there will be no net gain in income - and possibly a loss - for them if tuition fees are abolished.

An alternative proposal would be to adjust the balance between fees, grants and loans to target students from low-income backgrounds.

Concerns over student support have prompted MPs on the education and skills select committee to request meetings with Ms Morris and higher education minister Margaret Hodge. Evidence sessions are scheduled for October.

Barry Sheerman, committee chairman, said: "We will talk to Estelle Morris and Margaret Hodge about tuition fees and the move from grants to loans. We want to ask what ambitions the ministers have this year and whether they can address the problems.

"Our report on retention found the major reason for dropout was mismatch between courses and ability. Some way behind that was finance. Maybe in the future, there will be data that find we are putting off people from poorer backgrounds. Targeted support could be possible if there were evidence.

"The government must keep careful watch and, if there is clear evidence, it must change its policies. But it is not acceptable to go back to a system where 40 per cent of the higher education budget was spent on student maintenance. Our priority must be to attract and retain staff and regenerate our universities."

Geoff Layer, professor of lifelong learning at the University of Bradford and head of the Action on Access group, said: "In terms of full-time study, we know that the large majority of working-class kids are not paying tuition fees.

"But the key issue with discretionary maintenance grants is students do not know they are entitled to them until after they have enrolled. If a student is entitled to a grant, he or she should be aware of that before the application process commences."

Kenneth Clarke, who is running for leader of the Conservative Party, last week promised that, if elected, he would look at ways of abolishing tuition fees. "I don't want to deter students from going to university," he said.

His rival, Iain Duncan Smith, has not spoken on higher education. Nevertheless, he has received backing from Conservative students at the universities of Oxford, Durham, York, Exeter, Leeds, St Andrews, Bath, Brunel and Coventry, plus the London School of Economics, Imperial College, London, and King's College London.

Figures published by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service this week showed that mature students are returning to full-time study following the introduction of childcare grants for them.

The number of 21 to 24-year-olds accepting a full-time place for study this autumn has risen 12.2 per cent on last year. The number aged 25 and above is up 6.4 per cent.

From September, mature students will be entitled to a grant covering up to 85 per cent of the costs of childcare. It replaces the £1,000-a-year bursary for childcare and travel costs introduced last year. This bursary had been criticised for being discretionary and cash-limited rather than statutory.

A spokesman for the DFES said: "We have not announced a review (of the current system of university tuition fees and student loans), but will continue to monitor all aspects of education policy."

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