No more fool's gold

April 7, 1995

The National Union of Students' decision to review its battle cry for a return of historical grant levels can be seen as its own Clause Four debate. As in the Labour Party's modernising review, it is as much about internal reform as sending a message of renewed purpose both to supporters and opponents.

Tony Blair is winning through handsomely now, but at the start of the process the wholesale change seemed a terribly risky and divisive path to take. So it is with the NUS. The call for grants at their 1979 level seemed more than a policy. It was one of the student movement's defining characteristics. But as shadow education spokesman Bryan Davies hints in this week's THES, it was an increasingly untenable line in the sand, no longer recognised by any major political party.

The NUS decision to shelve its full grants policy and research and debate all other forms of student funding can only be widely welcomed. It is a crucial move because, first, it frees the union from the shackles of an idealism which has done nothing to improve its members' everyday experience. Second, it brings the union in from the margins to establish it as a player at the centre of the debate.

It is not easy to abandon principles. But, like the advocates of Clause Four, supporters of "the 1979 grant level" are obsessed with a myth. Mature students have always known what it is like to struggle to make ends meet, so have many adult learners and thousands of others at further education colleges. They did not share in any grants golden age.

Contrary to the view of the review's opponents, the Campaign for Free Education, the really big change going on is not acceptance of the market philosophy of survival of the financial fittest. That more accurately describes the current situation, as NUS hardship surveys regularly reveal.

Difficult though it is for the sit-in specialists to accept, the NUS is trying to find a practical way to ensure the genuinely socialistic broadening of a higher education system to which, at present, access is hindered by the failed regime of grants-plus-loans and the rationing of places that results from the high cost to the Treasury of each one. Since there are now many more university places available than in 1979, the NUS has realised the imperative is to encourage as wide a range of people as possible to participate, while maintaining the quality of the experience.

If its review is to look at the real cost of a place in a mass higher education system, then it must consider the added value students' contributions should bring and seek ways of ensuring that extra money coming in is not snaffled by the Treasury for other purposes instead of being spent on improving the quality of higher education.

For students to grasp the nettle and recommend either a contribution towards fees or a graduate tax, they will want to secure from the universities and Government a clear commitment to quality. This way lies greater power for tomorrow's students than their placard-waving predecessors could ever claim.

It is a curious anomaly that, across the country, student union meetings are regularly inquorate while so many of their members are struggling financially. But the students who commit their own future earnings to their education are likely to demand a much louder say in the process - something which augurs a renewed politicisation among students and more effective use of their own power.

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