Testing time at the seaside

March 22, 1996

Next week's National Union of Students meeting in Blackpool has a lengthy agenda, but as in all discussions of higher education, money and organisation will dominate.

Students are one of the key bodies that should have a say in Sir Ron Dearing's inquiry. The NUS is the body that should represent them. The more urgent question, though, is just what anyone on the Dearing committee with an interest in student welfare should say when the hard questions start to be asked.

The key to the debate is expansion, past and present. In no other field could output be raised so much, and the resources to provide it be so constrained, as in the recent history of British higher education. It is tempting to say that students have been the victims of this corner-cutting, with bigger classes, packed libraries and laboratories and increasing hardship and debt.

But a system in which participation in higher education has swollen to almost 30 per cent of the relevant age group cannot be regarded as having failed students. Even if the university experience is less rich than it might once have been, a record number of people are enjoying it.

However, even 30 per cent is very far from being a majority of society. People going to university are still likely to have a comparatively prosperous background even before they get the leg-up that a degree provides in the lifetime earnings stakes. This means that it is vital to make going to university less forbidding, especially to people from low-income households which are chary about debt - and to do so in a way that does not mean that such households are being taxed to allow more prosperous families to enhance their prospects yet further via university education.

The solution has to begin with reform of student loans, to make them acceptable to students. The NUS's rearguard action for restoration of full grants has been understandable but unrealistic. The sums involved have got beyond what any government will spend.

More difficult for NUS is the question of paying for teaching: the idea of a levy next year will not be received well in Blackpool. A compromise whereby this is dropped in return for greater willingness for students to pay for their own maintenance might fare better. But this is highly regressive: only poorer students get help with maintenance now.

The question student politicians must face next week is whether to dig in and continue to resist or to join in and help shape new arrangements. Waiting for a change of government will not help. Labour will not have students at the top of any list for new spending.

Please login or register to read this article

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments