The House of Commons select committee is right to look urgently at student support in United Kingdom universities. Decisions in Scotland following the Cubie report are creating new anomalies even as the Quigley committee's report leads to the ending of others.
There is no question that some students are facing serious hardship and some would-be students, particularly older people, are being put off further study. The survey of student rents published this week (Student Matters, page IV) shows that those dependent on loans have little or nothing left to live on after paying rent. But it is not a simple picture. It also emerges that the best appointed and most expensive halls of residence are most over subscribed.
Similar disparities underlie debate over tuition fees - now apparently proceeding behind closed doors in Whitehall. The most highly rated universities have clearly formed the view that the market can bear higher tuition fees - provided there are generous bursaries for poorer students and that such bursaries do not, as now, erode eligibility for fee waivers.
Action to provide more closely targeted support for poorer students could boost the government's access policies. We are at the beginning of a four-year demographic trough. There will be fewer 18-year-olds each year between now and 2003. Usually universities fill such troughs by recruiting more mature students, but this time the odds are stacked against such entrants.
The same demographic imperative suggests that changing the fee structure should be left until numbers rise. Too many institutions are scared that higher fees will mean unfilled places. They can also expect more strident student campaigning against fees of any sort. With no Labour candidate standing for president of the National Union of Students, whoever is elected this time will be untrammelled in their campaigning by any desire to please Labour party managers.
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