T his week the House of Lords amended the Teaching and Higher Education Bill to retain maintenance grants. This means the bill is now more or less in line with the recommendations of the Dearing committee for the present level of maintenance grants retaining while tuition fees are introduced. This is the right solution. The Dearing committee, which started out with a different view, became convinced during its deliberations that grants should be retained.
The government should have taken more time to consider its proposals when he reported. It should certainly think again now before deciding to try to reverse the amendment, however hard it may be to accept changes made by a body as anachronistic as the House of Lords. It should rethink particularly because, under the present rules of accounting, which the government has refused to change, loans and grants count as the same in public expenditure terms. The only savings come somewhere down the track when loans begin to be repaid. Face could be saved by agreeing to review the whole system in five years as Dearing recommended.
Reversing the Lords amendments may not in any case be quite as easy as the government believes, even in a compliant House of Commons. Removing grants punishes only the poor. Backbenchers, if they have to swallow fees, may prefer to keep grants. The government will no doubt try to stand on its manifesto commitment to abolish grants, but this was always a rum promise, somehow wrung from the party by the National Union of Students before the election in the hope of thereby avoiding fees. Once the decision was made to introduce fees the case for removing grants became harder to defend.
The amendment to allow all UK students to attend Scottish universities on the same terms as Scottish and other EU students should also be accepted. This change would probably be forced on the government by the European court anyway.
In considering what it should now do, the government should not overlook the narrowness of its victory on clause 18. Moves to strike out this clause, which gives the secretary of state power to control the level of tuition fees charged by universities and colleges, was only defeated by ten votes and that arguably only because government supporters talked on until cross benchers had gone home. This bill is not yet through the Lords. The government might be wise to settle for what it has got.
The case for acceptance is strengthened by this week's funding allocations. One of the purposes of the Teaching and Higher Education Bill is to ensure that all students pay the same no matter which university they attend. The clause 18 powers are a tacit recognition that all universities are not equal and that if they chose some could charge a premium.
This week's figures show how the research universities are now pulling away. Thanks to the selective distribution of funding council research money and the universities' own ability to gear this differential funding in the private sector, a marked discrepancy in wealth is opening up. Common frameworks and regulatory regimes are not going to prevent the emergence of an identifiable top tier. No sum of public money large enough to fund all universities for research on the scale of the top group will be forthcoming. Inevitably these universities are going to be attractive to students.
All the government can realistically do is concentrate on making sure that students from all backgrounds are able to afford to go to university. Present policy (on the bill as drafted) does not do this because it puts a greater burden of debt on the poorest students. The bill as amended would help.