While researchers rejoice over Dearing there are those who believe that tuition should remain free and that part-time students deserve more support
AS a former headteacher of an inner city comprehensive school I had more than a passing interest in the publication of the Dearing report. While I have rejoiced in the three-fold expansion of student numbers over the past 25 years I have been acutely aware that children from deprived urban environments were not part of this growth. If, as appears to be the consensus, we need to attract these students into higher education, the Dearing report and the Government's response would prove vital.
We can all subscribe to the high ideals of the report which include: improved facilities for research; improved quality of teaching; increased access for students from lower socioeconomic groups; closer links with industry; a more flexible framework of courses and qualifications; and improving information technology. But does the report propose a system that will prove attractive to students from poorer homes and attractive to a "learning society"?
The failure to attract students from poorer homes is largely the result of a failure to recruit these students into a post-16 education structure where participation rates have largely grown in ratio with higher entry since 1965. It is only in the past ten years that students have flocked into higher education from further education.
The Kennedy report was a significant contribution to this debate. It laid down a structure for part of tertiary education summed up eloquently in Kennedy's view that "widening participation in post-16 learning will create a self-perpetuating learning society". The report said "those who are disadvantaged educationally are also disadvantaged economically and socially". Yet its recommendations which would deliver many of the new generation of students to higher education barely features in either the Dearing proposals or the Government's response.
The cultural background of students from poorer homes does not promote the idea of three years studying full time away from home. Dearing understands that increased participation will only be secured via part-time and distance learning tied into work and where students see a reason to participate.
Already over 50 per cent of higher education students study part time and the percentage is likely to grow to 70 per cent over the next decade. Most of these students will study from home using local universities or colleges. Why then propose to do little about the financial prejudice against part-time students? The biggest financial barrier for many such students is the tuition fee. At present 1,057,000 part-time further education students contribute Pounds 111 million and over 300,000 part-timers in higher education pay Pounds 6 million towards their tuition. Why then accept the Dearing proposal to bring full-time in line with part-time students, when there is a strong argument to do the opposite?
To propose that you can widen access and increase participation in higher education by charging students for their tuition is misguided. There is a fundamental distinction between maintenance and tuition in the minds of both students and the public. The Government may have capitulated to pressure from the NUS to means-test the tuition fee for full-time students but what a hollow victory.
The Liberal Democrats have always opposed tuition fees or top-up fees. We have argued that free tuition should be extended to part-time students on approved courses.
We recognise that students will have to make a contribution to their living costs and support the removal of the mandatory grant in favour of an income-contingent loan. We particularly welcome the extended repayment period announced by the Secretary of State. The resulting Pounds 1.2 billion savings would make a significant contribution to higher education costs. This is particularly the case when the estimated saving from the introduction of fees is Pounds 150 million in 1998/99 rising to Pounds 400 million in 2000/01. As yet there is no commitment from the Government that the savings made in both abolishing the grant and in introducing fees will put in to higher education.
How can we argue that the future economic prosperity of the nation depends on a high value-added economy which in turn needs a highly skilled workforce then say the tax payer and employers should not contribute an increased share? Currently employers support over 100,000 students with their fees and universities rely heavily on industry for research grants. Over Pounds 450 million comes into higher education from industry yet this represents a very small investment for the outcome business derives.
Dearing looked very carefully at the Liberal Democrat proposal for a remissible 2 per cent levy on medium and large employers, paid via student "learning accounts" but concluded he did not have time to explore the option fully. The Government must find a way to increase revenue to higher education from employers and so make business a partner in the system.
Finally, the ambitious targets Dearing has set for the next millennium will not be realised without enhanced state funding. We spend less of our GDP on further and higher education than we did in 1980/81 and we spend considerably less than our major competitors.
Phil Willis MP is Liberal Democrat spokesman for further and higher education.