Minister spells out reforms

September 19, 1997

Education minister Tessa Blackstone blamed the press and the annual "scaremongering" about clearing for misunderstandings around the Government's response to Dearing's proposals in her speech to the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals' annual meeting in Strathclyde on Wednesday this week.

Responding to criticism that the Government had moved too quickly on student funding, she said: "With the 1998 admissions round fast approaching, it would not have been fair to keep prospective students and their parents ignorant of our plans." The Government published its own proposals on the day the Dearing report was published.

Under the Government's plans one in three students will receive free tuition. A further third, from families with a gross income of less than Pounds 30,000 to Pounds 35,000, will not have to pay the Pounds 1,000 in full, she said. The Government's decision to convert grants to loans - in direct opposition to Dearing's proposals - would not mean an extra burden for poor students.

"Our new progressive repayment system will be based on the ability to pay over a substantial period of time," she said.

The Government wants to set a higher repayment threshold than the Pounds 5,000 recommended by Dearing. Its funding arrangements would "make possible a higher level of savings than would be possible under the committee's preferred option alone", she said.

Baroness Blackstone did not reassure vice chancellors that fee income would be reinvested in higher education. She asked instead for "patience", and said there would be an announcement in the next two weeks.

She also said the following: * Additional funding for university places should be targeted at those institutions with a commitment to widening participation.

"We for our part will monitor the impact of fees on the proportion of students coming from different groups in society," she said.

* The Government will look at how to "redress the balance" between part-time students, who already pay fees, and full-timers.

* She stressed the importance of key skills and work experience.

* On quality, she said that the existing arrangements for safeguarding standards are "insufficiently clear-cut and explicit"; that there should be greater comparability in the terminology, level and standards of awards; and that the academic community has a collective responsibility for standards and quality of provision.

* Action needs to be taken to improve the governance arrangements of institutions. "I believe this is one of the most crucial and unrecognised aspects of higher education," she said.

Baroness Blackstone ended by calling for support from the sector. "Only by working together can we live up to the challenge that the Dearing committee has set of creating a confident higher education system at the heart of a learning society."

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