Fees the only option

July 4, 1997

Students stranded by Brown's budget. FEES for students became a near certainty this week when Gordon Brown's budget failed to find any extra cash for higher education.

While the Chancellor managed to conjure a surprise Pounds 1 billion for schools and Pounds 1.2 billion for health, universities were given no relief from the cuts laid down by the last Government.

This will increase pressures on the sector to make up the money by charging students, widely expected to be one of the chief recommendations of Sir Ron Dearing's commission of inquiry.

Further education also found little to crow about. While it will benefit from the part of the Pounds 3.5-billion welfare-to-work programme earmarked for training, there was no extra cash to plug existing holes in its finances.

Tony Travers, director of the Greater London Group at the London School of Economics and adviser to the House of Commons education committee, said: "We can see the budget laying the ground rules for the future.

"There will be extra money for further education from the windfall tax short-term, but in the future any extra money for further education won't come from schools. It will have to come from higher education. The current settlement for higher education is probably the best it is ever going to get."

He said there was no guarantee the extra Pounds 1 billion of schools money, found from reserves and paid to local authorities for the next academic year, would stay in education. While the Government intends to announce guideline budget increases for local authorities and maintain capping, it has not ring-fenced this cash.

"They cannot guarantee that some of the new Conservative-controlled counties will not simply use it to reduce council tax," he said.

Phil Willis, Liberal Democrat higher education spokesman, said: "He has presented Dearing with a fait accompli, saying to him, if you want to improve the quality of higher education you will have to charge students for their tuition."

A spokesman for the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals said: "We are still looking at expenditure reductions in 1998/99 and even bigger ones in 1999/2000. What is worrying in these plans is the impact on later years. We will have to wait to see what Dearing says."

The budget also put more pressure on the Government to ensure collection of student debt is kept outside the public sector borrowing requirement. Reductions in the PSBR of more than Pounds 10 billion over the next two years will allow little room for the large sums involved in student loans to be included.

The budget offered good news for universities and colleges running access courses for students without any basic qualifications. For this category of people, the Chancellor announced he would be relaxing the 16-hour rule, which limits the number of hours they can work while claiming benefits. This is designed to increase the number of long-term unemployed able to take up education. A new childcare strategy could also release more lone mothers for places in the higher or further education sectors.

The new University for Industry also received a boost, with the promise of a Pounds 5 million start-up grant. Josh Hillman, from the Institute of Public Policy Research, said: "It shows that the Government is intent on making it a top priority for post-compulsory education and training. It is the only thing that got a mention beyond schools."

John Brennan, director of policy at the Association of Colleges, said: "That he has found Pounds 1 billion for schools and nothing for any other bit of education is a surprise and disappointing from our point of view. It is not a problem welfare to work is going to solve because any money they get will simply be funding more work."

An Association of University Teachers spokesman said: "Education isn't simply up to 16. If the intention is to ensure that young people are prepared for the 21st century, they don't want to step from a 21st-century school into a 19th-century lecture theatre."

Leader, page 11

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