The f-word that will change everything

August 29, 1997

WHEN student loans were introduced I remember quoting a reassuring statement from the then Department of Education and Science that the value of the loan would not reach 50 per cent of the maintenance grant until 1999.

As I prepared the annual guidance leaflet for students last year, I had to take that soothing statement out because the maintenance grant had fallen so steeply that the "target" had already been reached. The recent announcements about fees and loans mean that another time bomb is ticking away.

Dearing recommended that grants should be retained but the Government will abolish them from 1998. He proposed a flat-rate annual tuition fee, but the Government has decided it will be means-tested.

The newspapers say Sir Ron has been snubbed, but the Government has called it "accepting the broad principles" while "modifying" them. It is all relative. The introduction of fees will change the nature of higher education irrevocably in a much shorter time than anyone cares to acknowledge.

We waited for Dearing. Now the Government gives a consultation period of precisely ten weeks in which to respond.

Tuition fees are now acceptable to the Government, although it has still to endorse additional top-up fees by individual universities. Very much like Australia really, but then time passes. The Australian government has abolished the ban on full fees and half a dozen universities will be charging full fees for some places in 1998. The more prestigious are even offering full-fee places to students who have done most of their studying at another university.

South African students, who are used to paying fees, already suffer what Brenda Gourley called in a recent THES article "financial exclusion". She said that it was "probably the most politically hot issue and it causes the most unpleasantness - and sadness - in the system".

Sir Ron and two members of the Dearing Committee, John Arbuthnott and Diana Laurillard, have questioned whether the Government's plans for tuition fees have been properly considered and whether they might turn out to be more socially regressive than the Dearing recommendations.

The National Union of Students has promised a vigorous campaign against fees, and this will be supported by many university authorities. Financial institutions are already rubbing their hands at the money-making opportunities.

It is understandable that the Government is focusing on short-term measures. It has inherited huge problems from the Conservatives that it has already declared will not be solved by increased taxation. But tuition fees will change the system forever.

There has always been an informal league table of universities whether judged by the number of applications, the number of public school entrants, the amount of research income, the number of graduates who become judges and generals, or just by word of mouth.

Tuition fees will help to institutionalise the league tables. As time goes by, who could deny that fees will increase, that fees will vary between institutions, and that fees will force parents to take out two mortgages - one for their house and one for their children. This is one step that time will not heal.

Rita Donaghy is permanentsecretary of the Institute ofEducation students' union, and a member the national executive of Unison, the TUC general council and the European TUC Executive.

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