Silence and the ghosts of education past

July 25, 1997

PERHAPS it was the effect of taking higher education out of party politics for so long. Whatever the reason, David Blunkett's commons statement on the Dearing Report was a distinctly subdued affair - albeit one heavily populated by the ghosts of education past with ex-ministers John MacGregor, Tim Boswell, Robert Jackson and Eric Forth among the speakers.

Mr Blunkett assured the house on several occasions that he was "grasping the nettle" - an operation which always sounds better than it feels. He said: "Our preferred solution secures equity, access, quality and accountability. Our proposals retain the principle that repayments should be made on the basis of future income, not present circumstances."

The Labour benches received him in near silence, roused only to react by Tory spokesman Stephen Dorrell's attempt to inject heat into the occasion. Mr Dorrell spoke of "missed opportunities", alleged that Mr Blunkett had lost a battle with Chancellor Gordon Brown and accused him of offering "a guaranteed loan to the young people from Islington and a kick in the teeth to young people in Sheffield".

Mr Dorrell's cause was hardly aided by his nominal allies. Robert Jackson said the Government had taken a "courageous decision which would be welcomed by everyone with the interests of universities at heart". Tim Boswell accused Mr Blunkett of subjecting students to a "deferred windfall tax", but was still broadly sympathetic.

But one reason why the parties chose to deep-freeze higher education is the divisions exposed by unfreezing. Labour's Dennis Canavan talked splenetically of "reactionary proposals" which should be "kicked into the bucket where they belong". John Cryer, milder and more reasoned, said he failed to understand how tuition fees could possibly aid access to higher education. Gerry Steinberg epitomised Labour feelings best, saying he endorsed the Government response, but was "still a little sad" at accepting tuition fees.

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