Parties air difference in policies

February 14, 1997

THES looks at reaction to the DFEE's fourth Dearing submission, which queried standards and expansion

THE PARTY political truce on higher education policy, instituted a year ago by the appointment of the Dearing committee, appears to have broken down with the release last week of Government evidence to the review arguing for a freeze in student numbers.

Labour seized on the opportunity to emphasise the gap between the Government and its own position, calling for continued expansion and a reformed funding system based on student repayment of maintenance loans.

A spokesman for David Blunkett, shadow education and employment secretary, said: "The Government is not prepared to come clean to the electorate on the need for funding reform and has been unable to come up with a coherent set of proposals".

Labour has said money for expansion would come from funding reform. Priority would be on providing nursery places and smaller classes in primary schools.

Bryan Davies, shadow further and higher education spokesman, said the Government was locked into a low-skills equilibrium. "It fails to recognise the long-term evidence that different economies have successfully absorbed increased numbers of graduates".

There were Labour suggestions that the Government could be planning to reposition itself as the conservative guardian of quality in a limited-access system.

Liberal Democrat spokesman Don Foster said his party might also accept a cap on expansion to protect quality rather than save money. The Liberal Democrats are likely to propose spending an extra Pounds 300 million on higher education out of an estimated Pounds 2 billion generated by an extra penny on the standard rate of income tax. This would be to bolster quality rather than renewed expansion.

But Mr Foster said that once quality had been retrieved, expansion could resume. He rejected arguments that graduate supply was likely to outstrip demand: "There are national benefits to be gained from having graduates in all kinds of occupations. It is essential to allow everyone who can benefit from higher education to participate in it as far as possible."

Further and higher education issues are also hitting MPs' postbags. David Jamieson, Labour MP for Plymouth Devonport and a member of the Commons Select Committee on Education and Employment, said he expected they would be a factor at the election. "The possibility of numbers being frozen is worrying a lot of people," he said. A canvass of part of his constituency found that student poverty and debt was a big worry.

But George Walden, the former higher education minister who will leave the Conservative benches at the next election, still doubts that the political process will generate effective reform.

Mr Walden, who instituted an adjournment debate last week to reaffirm his support for funding reform based on repayment of tuition fees, said: "This is an issue which is discussed far more outside Parliament than in it. There are intelligent people on both sides who recognise the problem, but there is no likelihood that either front bench will tackle the issue, particularly at the moment. They know that anyone who does will upset people and nobody wants to break the code of silence."

Unit costs/Funding per full-time equivalent student (Pounds ) 93/94 94/95

Pre-primary and primary 1,660 1,660

Secondary 2,290 2,0

FEFC 2,720 2,700

HEFCE 4,740 4,620

Source: DFEE

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