Loans and fees do not aid access

February 4, 2000

It may be possible from the rarefied heights of the Department for Education and Employment for David Blunkett to believe that the substitution of loans for grants and the imposition of tuition fees will open up access to higher education to those from poorer social classes ("A fair, accessible system that pays its own way", THES, January 28).

From where I work in a new university, the evidence is that students from such backgrounds are increasingly hard pressed by the new funding regime and the recent fall-off in applicants (especially among mature students) suggests many are not bothering to apply in the first place. It really is offensive for Blunkett to pretend that the abolition of grants has not had a disproportionate effect on those for whom (like Blunkett and myself) the existence of grants made access to higher education possible.

If, as Blunkett claims, graduates will earn more during their lives and be less likely to be unemployed, this will be reflected in the income tax they pay and therefore in their contribution to revenues for higher education. If increased rates of tax for higher earners really are politically impossible, then let us have an ear-marked graduate tax for the funding of higher education.

What seems to be forgotten is that we all benefit from a more highly educated society - not just in terms of competition or flexibility, as Labour believes, but in helping to foster a more critical and discriminating population. This government needs to decide whether it thinks higher education is a personal choice in a society of isolated competitive individuals or something in which we all have an investment, as generations of socialists have believed. Whatever the rhetoric about social inclusion, it appears that this judgement has already been made, as one feature of late 20th-century political history seems to have been the capitulation by social democrats such as Blunkett to the values of market liberalism.

Tony Dennis Leighton Buzzard, Bedfordshire

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