Last-minute discussion is a gamble for Clarke

November 22, 2002

There is a temptation to mock an invitation to respond to 77 often fundamental questions about higher education only a week ahead of the date when the government was to have published its strategy. Are ministers really looking for better measures to "help students understand the quality of teaching in different institutions", for example, little more than a year after they agreed to abolish the last ones? However, the point of this week's discussion paper was not to find ideas that might have been missed, but to refocus a debate that has not gone as Downing Street intended. Leftwing backbenchers were always expected to oppose top-up fees, but heavyweight figures such as Clare Short and Frank Dobson are a different matter.

There are dangers in broadening the argument at this late stage. Already ministers have been sidetracked by the unlikely suggestion that parental income might be disregarded in a new payment regime. And if opposition to top-up fees becomes unstoppable, what then? The discussion paper admits to a £4.7 billion backlog in capital work and a growing shortfall in teaching funds. The Treasury may be reluctant to cede control of such vast sums but, even if the spending review finally brings some relief, the case for a step change has been made.

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