The decisions they face

May 9, 1997

THES reporters examine the higher and further education issues facing the new ministers


FUNDING, fees and student loans will be top of David Blunkett's higher education action list, writes Harriet Swain.

With funding per student cut by 35 per cent in real terms over the past ten years, a maintenance backlog of Pounds 1.25 billion and warnings of a Pounds 17 million deficit in the sector, universities will demand fast answers from the new education and employment secretary.

He will receive a helping hand from Sir Ron Dearing, whose national committee of inquiry into the future of higher education reports in two months. But Sir Ron, who is expected to meet the new education ministers soon, is likely to offer options rather than solutions to the major questions.

And some decisions will have to be taken earlier than July, especially if Gordon Brown, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, goes ahead with his planned summer budget. While any education measures it includes are likely to focus on schools and nursery provision, it could have a knock-on effect on higher education because of Mr Brown's decision to cash-limit departmental budgets.

An overhaul of university funding is likely to offer the Department for Education and Employment its only financial slack.

Frank Field, the new minister for welfare, has already stated that seeking private finance for student grants could release Pounds 1.3 billion to help unlock the welfare budget, by providing money for childcare and nursery education and allowing more single mothers to seek work.

Vice chancellors will be just as keen to ensure that any change in funding benefits their institutions.

Mr Blunkett's fundamental decision will be over student loans: should students be expected to pay for both tuition and maintenance? How should they repay their loans? Should the Student Loans Company be sold to the private sector?

On all these questions he will await Dearing's advice. But his final answers will have to include more private money and substantially greater contributions from students. The new higher education minister, Baroness Blackstone, has suggested that maintenance contributions alone would not be enough.

This will lead him on to the question of top-up fees. At Labour's party conference last year, Mr Blunkett threatened to penalise institutions which levied these fees and only a handful have included clauses in this year's prospectus allowing top-up fees to be introduced next year. But vice chancellors argue the Government has no power to stop them introducing fees. Oxford and Cambridge are among those institutions which have left the option open.

Diana Warwick, chief executive of the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals, has called on the new Government "to be bold, show the vision required and introduce a new system".

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