Minister survives Oxford's 'lion's den'

January 25, 2002

The big question: what to wear to a debate about student poverty and access? No problem if you are an Oxford student. Evening dress. The grand crimson chamber of the Oxford Union took on a surreal gothic flavour as the begowned president, Charlotte Keenan, seated on a magisterial throne, called the debate to order.

"This house believes that the government's higher education policy is failing students" was the motion.

The union had assembled a distinguished crew. Supporting the motion was the slight grey-haired figure of David Rendel, the Liberal Democrat education spokesman. Next to him was Damian Green, Conservative education spokesman.

Lined up in opposition was higher education minister Margaret Hodge, making her second appearance in this archaic lion's den since becoming minister. Supporting her was the vice-chancellor of Oxford, Colin Lucas.

Mr Rendel lamented spiralling debt and declining funding per student while supporting widening participation. Mr Green took a similar tone, praising the previous Conservative government's move to mass higher education, but putting the blame for low participation rates for poorer students on poor schools.

Their student supporters did their best to wipe out years of access work at Oxford in two hours. Jeff Bell, a former president, opened the debate: "The government is waging class war in its higher education policies. Universities bend over backwards to get people in from state schools." He decried the rise of vocational degrees.

Student Charlie Ramsay said the £92 million spent on widening participation in 2000 would be better spent on "improving universities for the most able". He went on: "We need to keep the elite separate and protected financially." Wagging his finger at Ms Hodge, he warned that "society will break down" if the United Kingdom moves to a 50 per cent participation ratio. He said there would be too many leaders and not enough people left to lead.

As Ms Hodge rose to speak, a number of students attempted to protest against tuition fees by painting their bodies gold. As they were hustled away by security, Ms Hodge said she was "too short-sighted" to get a good look.

She spent most of her time firing at the opposition, mocking Liberal Democrat plans to fund higher education out of their extra penny on income tax. "It really is the longest 'p' in history," she said.

She defended widening participation on economic and moral grounds. "Eight out of ten of the new jobs created in the knowledge economy will require a higher education qualification," she said.

Young people from the top socioeconomic class had a three in four chance of going to university, Ms Hodge said, compared with one in ten from the lower class. "That has nothing to do with talent or potential, it is all to do with the class system."

She pointed to the government's £1.7 billion injection of extra cash into higher education since coming to power, but remained uninformative on the government's review of student funding.

Dr Lucas emphasised Oxford's support for the government's twin aims of widening participation and supporting world-class universities. But he warned: "At present it seems to me that these two objectives, genuinely held by government, are contradictory, the one damaging the other."

The union voted overwhelmingly in favour of the motion by 209 votes to 85.

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