This week, under cover of the pre-budget statement with its money for after-school clubs and publication of the Fryer report with its emphasis on access, the bill to reform student loans, abolish grants and charge students for tuition was introduced in the Lords. There was no text when we went to press.
The bill is being presented in terms of reassuring parents and students over the government's policies. Reassurance has become the top priority. Three weeks ago the National Union of Students mobilised 40,000 protesters. This week the campaign for free education brought 8,000 out in London. The latest figures suggest higher education applications for next year may be down 10 per cent. So anxious has the government become that the education secretary has written to sixth-formers urging them not to be put off and the education department has written to vice chancellors telling them to go easy on debtors.
There is indeed much concern. It results from the government muddling up two issues: money to help institutions provide good quality education (fees) and money to support students (grants).
Universities need more money. This week's pre-budget statement made clear that pensioners, the children of single parents and the jobless are (rightly) the first beneficiaries of improved public finances. Since Labour will not raise taxes enough to finance higher education better (along with other good causes like museums and galleries), fees are the only practical option. The fee is relatively modest. It will not have to be paid by poorer families. If introduced on its own the impact on access should have been slight.
The big mistake is abolishing grants. This is a highly regressive policy on a par with cutting welfare benefits for single parents. It hits only the worst-off. It involves a much larger financial penalty than the fee and is indeed likely to deter poorer students from going into higher education. Labour was wrong to make this commitment in its manifesto and it is wrong to go ahead with the policy now. It is the removal of the grant which will plunge students from poorer families into unacceptable levels of debt . It is this which is driving the public campaign against fees. The government should reconsider this decision - as it has others. It will have to sooner or later anyway.