The government was this week accused of suppressing a survey it commissioned that threatened to wreck its plans to scrap student maintenance grants and introduce undergraduate tuition fees.
Liberal Democrats say the government deliberately ignored a survey showing that up to a third of mature higher education applicants would be deterred by the introduction of fees and the abolition of grants. The survey, if published, would have undermined the government's planned reform of student funding. As it was, ministers were able to deny any deterrent effects.
The Continental Research survey, which was designed to assess the success of advertising about fees, was carried out in January 1998 and presented to the Department for Education and Employment on February 4. A third of the 202 respondents, all aged over 25, said they were less likely to go to university as a result of the new arrangements being introduced that autumn.
But the survey remained unpublished until July this year and its existence emerged only after Don Foster, the former Liberal Democrat education spokesman, asked a parliamentary question calling for a list of the research carried out by the department. The list was placed in the library. The Liberal Democrats then requested the survey from the DFEE.
In the 18 months between the presentation of the mature students survey to the DFEE and its publication, the government pushed its controversial Teaching and Higher Education Bill through Parliament. The bill, which scrapped grants and paved the way for fees, was only in its early stages in February but had completed all parliamentary stages by July last year. Ministers repeatedly denied opposition claims of a deterrent effect during its passage.
Evan Harris, the Liberal Democrats' higher education spokesman, said: "This shows that government covered up evidence that its policy would deter mature students from going to university while publicly claiming there were no grounds for concern.
"The government was prepared to risk educational opportunities for thousands of people in pursuit of an obviously flawed policy. Under the new funding arrangements the government saves money because students pay. So money, not students, was at the top of the government's agenda. Is this what the government means by widening participation?" Dr Harris said that the Freedom of Information Bill should be amended to ensure ministers are not able to delay publication of research that has serious implications for legislation.
The survey showed that nearly one in five said they would be a little less likely to go into higher education because of the changes in student support. A further 14 per cent said that they would be a lot less likely to go.
Only 9 per cent (19 people) said they would be more likely to go. The majority, 54 per cent of all respondents (109 people), said that fees would make no difference to their decision. Overall, 79 per cent were aware tuition fees would be a maximum of Pounds 1,000 last year.
By the start of the new term in October this year the number of entrants aged over 25 was down by 3.5 per cent (33,961, compared with 35,134 in 1998). The government says that much of this can be explained by demographic and other changes. The argument is that the pool of potential mature students is shrinking as the number of school-leavers with degrees increases, combined with the fact there has been a huge increase in mature students in recent years.
A DFEE spokesman said: "There is no evidence to suggest the changes have affected the flow of mature students into higher education. Figures reflect the buoyant labour market, with mature students more likely to remain in work and study part time than to study full time."
* WHAT THEY SAID AT THE TIME
David Blunkett, House of Commons, March 16 1998.
"We will monitor what happens with mature students, and we will ensure that the expansion of hardship funds and other measures protects and helps them."
* Baroness Blackstone, House of Lords, March 2 1998 in response to the drop in mature student applications.
"We are concerned ... and we shall try to do everything we can to ensure that the kind of information we have been able to get to younger applicants is given to older applicants."
* Baroness Blackstone, also March 2 1998.
"We have heard some alarmist statements about what the effects of our proposals might be, but little hard evidence, I am afraid."
n Baroness Blackstone, June 23 1998.
"I do not deny that student support has its part to play, but it would be helpful if we considered the facts about the impact of grants and loans on access."