Plans for making students from well-off families contribute towards the cost of higher education need not necessarily be a vote loser, a MORI poll commissioned by The THES has shown.
Fears of upsetting potential supporters have inhibited all the major parties in considering the issue, most notably last year when Labour higher education spokesman Jeff Rooker was sacked from the front bench after suggesting contributions. With Gillian Shephard's Department for Education review under way and Labour again considering a variety of possible funding systems, the results will strengthen the hand of those calling for such contributions.
Two-thirds of the nationwide sample of 1,824 adults questioned early last month said they agreed with the proposition that "Students from well-off families should contribute to tuition costs", and per cent said they were strongly in favour. The 68 per cent in favour outnumbered opponents (21 per cent) by more than three to one.
The political parties will also note that there is little difference between the opinions of their supporters. Seventy-one per cent of Liberal Democrats agreed, compared to 68 per cent of Labour and 67 per cent of Conservative supporters. There was less enthusiasm among social classes A and B than other groups -- but ABs were still 62 per cent in favour.
The findings suggest a marked contrast to academic opinions uncovered in a survey of THES readers, even given a slight difference in question preamble and scales used in the two surveys. Replies to a survey from 1,125 readers -- most of them employed in further or higher education -- showed a small margin against contributions, with 39 per cent in favour and 42 per cent against.
The MORI poll found opinion even more decisive on student debt, with 83 per cent of the public agreeing that "Students should be allowed to study without building up debts". There is also widespread public support for university research, with a four to one majority disagreeing with the proposition that most university research was a waste of time.
A smaller, but still conclusive, majority took a practical view of university education, rejecting the view that it is not the purpose of universities to train people for jobs.
While allowing for the caveats about the self-selected nature of The THES reader survey sample, our polls do suggest immense and growing concern about falling degree standards and a growing distrust of quality audit and assessment arrangements. A three to one majority, rising to nearly six to one among scientists, rejected the proposition that "Degree standards are currently being maintained". In 1992 the ratio was closer to three to two.
And while the 1992 survey showed a three to one majority for the proposition that "Quality audit and assessment are useful guides to progress" tP2he 1994 margin was dramatically closer, with only 42 per cent agreeing and 36 per cent disagreeing. Lecturers disagree most strongly, while administrators are the group most heavily in favour.