Charges for right brigade

February 3, 1995

Today is the deadline for submissions to the Secretary of State for Education's review of higher education. Our reports of the evidence that has been pouring in show eagerness for expansion, diversification and the continued adaptation of this growth industry to the many strong demands upon it.

The department has tried to confine the review initially to general questions of purpose and scope with the difficult bit - how to pay for it - left to later. Unsurprisingly, it has not succeeded. Providers of higher education are an entrepreneurial lot these days. They are not much interested in whatever answers the DFE may have to such broad questions, smacking, as they do, of a command economy, except in so far as the answers may indicate the source of funding. They are interested first, second and last in money.

As the National Commission on Education told the DFE, the money debate can no longer wait. Indeed it is bubbling already. Conservative Central Office is gathering evidence from various exponents of tuition charges with an eye to the party's manifesto. The Liberal Democrats are trying to find a way round fees through vouchers, repayable social security payments, means tests and value for money studies. The Council for Industry and Higher Education was discussing funding of higher education at their meeting this week.

How to pay for higher education is a worldwide, not just a British, issue. Those who prefer to rely wholly on public funding, this week lost one of their most important bastions. Unesco has reluctantly accepted that students and parents who can afford to do so should help provide the resources needed. Unesco's conversion is more significant than that of the World Bank whose hard-nosed prescription for more private funding published last autumn caused predictable offence. Unesco's vision is softer, more concerned with cultural values and social cohesion than the bank's.

As Unesco's report was published, the Irish government, faced with similar budgetary pressures, was weighing up whether it could afford to honour last summer's promise to abolish tuition fees. The decision will be known on Wednesday.The anxiety of governments faced with escalating social spending was betrayed this week by the news that European Union ministers plan to hold seminars on ways of containing costs as populations age: the projected medical and pensions bills scare them all. So much so that even the French (hosts of the seminars) are again braving student wrath to try to reduce the public cost of higher education by rationing places and raising enrolment fees. The debate is moving now from whether there should be charges to when and how.

For the UK the answer to when is becoming pretty clear. The backroom work is beginning now because now is the time to prepare unpleasant measures which will be pushed through quickly in the slipstream of an election victory.

It is therefore how which must be the focus for debate in the next year; how to ensure that any extra money stays in further and higher education; how to keep open opportunities while extracting contributions; how to prevent the already privileged monopolising advantage.

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