Lords in gap year victory

June 25, 2004

The Government has caved in to a demand from the House of Lords to waive top-up fees for all students who defer university places in 2005 to take a gap year just before the new variable fees regime begins.

As the Higher Education Bill returned to the House of Commons this week, the Government accepted a Lords amendment that means students taking a gap year in 2005 will escape top-up fees of up to £3,000 a year for the duration of their courses.

But the Government used its majority in the Commons to overturn all the other defeats inflicted on ministers by the Lords.

These included a decision to waive top-up fees for the fourth, fifth and sixth year of all degree courses lasting more than three years, which ministers said would cost £180 million a year in lost fees income.

Also reversed was an amendment to ensure that no future government could use additional fee income to justify a cut in public funding to universities.

In addition, the Commons overturned a series of Government defeats over the Office for Fair Access (Offa), inflicted by the Lords, which would have dramatically cut the access watchdog's regulatory powers.

Explaining the climbdown on gap-year students, Alan Johnson, the Higher Education Minister, said that the government was happy to concede the move as it was something the universities had lobbied for. "This will avoid the risk that students will forgo a gap year in 2005," he said.

Last year, 18,900 students officially deferred taking up their place at university to take a gap year, but 30,000 are thought to have taken unofficial gap years, simply applying for university a year later. Next year, deferred-entry students will pay the existing £1,200 tuition fee when they take up places in 2006, rather than up to £3,000 a year.

Both the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives claimed victory. Chris Grayling, the Shadow Higher Education Minister, said the concession would prevent a damaging rush of applications to beat top-ups in 2005.

Meanwhile, the Government was accused of betraying backbench Labour MPs who supported the top-up fees policy by making its own changes to Offa in the Lords.

While the Government overturned its defeats in the Lords on Offa, it pushed through Government amendments that make clear that the office will have no remit over any aspect of university admissions - including admissions standards, requirements, procedures, policies and decisions.

They will give Offa an explicit duty to protect universities' "academic freedom" to "determine the contents of courses and the manner in which they are taught, supervised or assessed".

The Government has also ensured that Offa will have no power to penalise universities for failing to increase the proportion of underrepresented students they admit - as long as they can show that they have "taken all reasonable steps" to reach out and open their doors to more applicants.

Mr Grayling said the Government got its fees policy through the Commons by promising a strong Offa. "A lot of backbenchers will feel betrayed."

Despite having most of their amendments overturned by the Commons, it seemed this week that the Lords would not disrupt the passage of the Bill too much by persistently bouncing it back. Ministers were confident that the Bill would receive its third reading and reach the statute books before the summer recess.


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