Lib Dems can drive impetus for further change

September 24, 1999

Little by little, support for mature and part-time students is improving. Higher education minister Baroness Blackstone used her speech to the vice-chancellors last week to announce extra money in the access funds for mature students and for bursaries. She also promised more next year.

The government is right to act. Figures in this year's Higher Education Trends (pages i-viii) show a continuing drop in applications from mature students, many of whom study part-time.

The latest concessions come on top of earlier moves, which have quietly opened up prospects for some potential students who otherwise face almost insuperable odds. For example, local authorities can award housing and council tax benefit to "certain students" including those with disabilities, single parents, student couples with dependent children and part-timers. This should help students with families and young people living in hostels or foyers, who otherwise lose their ability to pay for their accommodation if they enrol as students.

Though piecemeal and far short of the certainty that mandatory grants offered full-time students under the old system, the raft of improvements in support is certainly welcome. Unfortunately, though, the penalty of providing help through a plethora of small schemes operated by different agencies makes it hard for would-be students to find out what help they can expect before committing themselves to a course of study.

Fortunately, further review of student support is likely to be triggered by the Cubie committee's attempts to find consensus in the fees debate now raging in Scotland. Fees, clumsily introduced without a political mandate, have become, like the poll tax, a powerful cudgel with which opposition parties can beat the government. But that does not make putting Pounds 45 million into the pockets of Scotland's best-off families the right solution.

Changed leadership in the Liberal Democratic party seemed this week to be opening up the possibility of wider thinking on the whole area of support, including fees. For the time being the membership has resisted, but that is unlikely to stop reassessment of the party's policy at the top. If the Lib Dems can help find a compromise that preserves the coalition in Scotland, ameliorates the very real hardship faced by some students in both further and higher education, and maintains the revenue stream to institutions from fees paid by those who are, or will become, well-off, they will do a great service to the whole United Kingdom.

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