Politics, principles and public relations

September 26, 1997

Why is everyone so disinclined to bite the bullet on funding further and higher education, and financing its students? Unfortunately, those to whom we might look for long-term solutions - most recently the Dearing committee - seem to dispense only sticking plaster.

The philosophy seems to be that the move to mass participation means the consumer must pay directly, the state's primary role is to organise loans and, hopefully, no one will notice that post-school education is sliding from a public to a commercial service.

It makes you think of television. Here the debate is at least one of principle. Should the licence fee exist (and be inflated) to allow the maintenance of the BBC with its acknowledged world-leading standards? Or should we take the Kelvin MacKenzie medicine of a BBC-less future, 100 channels, direct consumer payment and advertising-based revenue? And if it all turns out like Live TV it will not matter.

Of course there is no equivalent to advertising revenue in the education sphere. But the licence fee is a poll tax or, if you like, a specific tax. Like graduate taxation, it is only paid by those who qualify to pay it and can afford to do so. Of course if your only social policy is to reduce tax, poll tax, and any form of specific tax sticks in your craw.

Fortunately for our mass media culture, there are those who are standing up and being counted. They are saying that the more we increase channels and seek to reduce costs per TV hour the more we need to keep the licence fee to ensure that in the middle of chaos there is calm and quality.Apparently there are those who believe in an absolute standard of quality and reject MacKenzie's definition that quality is the best you can make with the money you have got.

We need a lobby in further and higher education. It needs to stand up and say some unpopular things and unite around four things: that the funding of further and higher education should beprimarily a responsibility of the state * that a scheme of taxation - a graduate tax rather than licence fee, perhaps - is a mark of a civilised society * that at the point of consumption cost to the consumer should be low * that further education students and their institutions should have the same financial support as their higher education counterparts.

Those who proclaim these principles will be accused of old thinking. They will be accused, wrongly, of not being modernisers. They may not get honoured by new Labour any more than they were by old Thatcherites. They will be accused of pursuing sectional interests.

But that is the price of lobbying for what is right: it is a political enterprise and not, as some seem to believe who use the initials incessantly, a public relations exercise in which you can say damning things and not be blamed for it.

Gradually, we will learn that fighting for education, the BBC or the maintenance of any other public service makes you unpopular and, sometimes, vilified. Politics is like that. PR is not.

Keith Scribbins is chair of governors at City of Bristol College.

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