Despite all the recent coverage of student funding - whether polls, politicians-in-search-of-a-policy or the more considered views to be found in your columns, there is a deafening silence from those at the sharp end -ie students, potential students and parents. Perhaps as a parent of two recent graduates (one unemployed, one earning below the student loan repayment threshold), I might sound a note of warning against thinking there are any easy answers.
The past 16 years should have provided an object lesson on the dangers of "back of an envelope" approaches to policy-making (remember the poll tax?). The danger inherent in the present "reaction" to the perceived crisis in higher education funding is that finding a "solution" NOW is seen as more important than looking at the outcomes of any new system for students as well as for higher education institutions. This is too important an issue to be left to the sloganising of the media or politicians and even now as "graduate tax" becomes flavour of the month, it is still not too late for a serious debate to take place.
Some of the issues of that debate will be about distinguishing payments for fees from student maintenance awards; students ( and their parents in many cases) already contribute to their own maintenance, and their single most pressing problem is no work and no benefits over the summer vacation. Any proper system of funding has to meet several often conflicting criteria to provide adequate income to both the insitution and the student; not to deter mature students with family commitments or those from non-traditional backgrounds; to be equitable between full-time and part-time students and be so transparent that students can make rational choices before committing themselves. All this is a pretty tall order and none of it addresses the problems of postgraduate research.
Anything like a graduate tax must inspire more public confidence than the iniquitous student loans quango: but it must also address issues of definition which will be crucial to its success. There are no working models for a graduate tax - will a looming general election push future students into a system with no infrastructure and no contact with reality, like the Child Support Agency?
The experiences of recent students and in some cases their parents are at least founded on the reality of student life in the 1990s. Reading much of what passes for policy-making one could wish that those with power to shape any future system would at least give the impression of listening to those who know how difficult it is.
Stonegate Road, Leeds