Lords must leap to grants defence

June 12, 1998

The Teaching and Higher Education Bill is now through the House of Commons. During its progress the government has used its majority to strip out two amendments inserted by the House of Lords against its wishes - one to ensure that English, Welsh and Northern Irish students attending Scottish universities are treated in the same way as Scottish and other European Union students, the other to keep maintenance grants for students from low-income families.

Members of the Lords must now decide what to do. On the Scottish anomaly there is cross-party support for restoring the original Lords amendment. This can probably therefore be carried - and should be. If it is, the government should accept it. The cost is trivial (estimated at about Pounds 2 million) and the government's proposals are unfair.

Maintenance grants present the Lords with more of a problem. On this the opposition is split. The Liberal Democrats, perhaps a little too anxious to demonstrate their distinctiveness from new Labour, have set their faces against fees and are therefore in difficulty defending grants since with neither change there will be no much-needed cash to spend on universities and colleges.

But fees are now unavoidable. And enough concessions have been made to exempt poorer students and ensure that charges cannot rise in the alarming way they have in the United States. On grants, however, there is time to have another go. The size of the Labour revolt in the Commons would justify the Lords returning to this issue. If the Liberal Democrats could bring themselves to join the Conservatives, grants might yet be saved. From their point of view this would surely be better than nothing. It is the removal of grants, not fees, which threatens students from poorer families with unacceptably large debts. Evidence that this prospect is deterring mature students is getting more compelling as applications data for 1998 becomes firmer (page 2).

The decision to reject the Dearing committee's recommendation that grants be retained was wrong. Grants are a targeted benefit which enables people to develop their full potential without placing excessive burdens on families who cannot afford to help. Replacing them by non-means tested loans, even if those loans are not repayable until subsequent income reaches Pounds 10,000, creates a bizarre situation. Students from well-off families which support their children while they study are able to borrow substantial sums of public money at zero real interest to pay for extras - cars, travel or whatever - while students whose families cannot help out must balance the certainty of large debts and/or working long hours in poorly-paid jobs against the uncertain prospect of a well-paid job later.

The opposition Lords should unite to try to restore the grants amendment as well as the Scottish one. After Lord Richard's announcement on Monday, Conservative business managers, who have been going softly in the hope of averting reform which will remove their built-in majority, have little left to gain by caution. The Liberal Democrats could save something for poorer students. And the hereditary cohort, starting with Lord Onslow, who has promised to do his "final duty" by wrecking the timetable ("What fun to go out as a football hooligan"), might relish a last outing as defenders of the poor and aspiring.

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