Time to face up to the big picture

September 5, 1997

Summer ended this week with wind and rain and horrifying sudden death in a Paris underpass. The tidal wave of emotion, which has carried a sea of flowers and messages up against the sternly barred gates of Buckingham and Kensington palaces, has swept politics away and drowned out its petty preoccupations.

Prime minister Tony Blair was to have made a speech tomorrow bringing attention back to "the big picture". But all week the big picture - love, life and death; the future of a monarchy which seems isolated from the people; the creation of a secular icon - has driven out all else.

After Princess Diana's funeral tomorrow business will return to normal with four days of brisk campaigning in Scotland, with the British Association in Leeds and the Trades Union Congress in Brighton.

During 1997's sweltering August The THES has held open house for people in Britain and round the world to comment on the Dearing committee's report Higher Education in a Learning Society and on the Government's policy in response to it. There is now just a month to go before the end of the period set for consultation. In the next few weeks The THES will try to pull together the responses to the fees policy which has been announced and to the wide range of recommendations in Dearing's report on which the Government has not yet declared its intentions.

Ministers do not face an easy task. They have painted themselves into a corner. They cannot reassure universities and colleges that fees will bring them extra money as soon as they start to be paid because of the timetable of the spending review and the commitment to stick with Tory spending plans meanwhile.

Fear of public protest has led the education secretary, David Blunkett, to promise that, though fees must be paid, no family would have to find more money up front. Loans will therefore be increased.

Because the Government has not at the same time managed to shift at least part of the cost of these loans off the public spending accounts, all the extra money raised by fees risks being recycled to students for loans. The "savings", which it was promised would flow to universities and colleges to improve access and quality, will only accrue when repayments kick in sometime in the next century.

Charges for tuition are unpopular but if, as they begin to be paid, the money flows clearly into higher education they can be defended. If, however, fees turn out to be a poll tax on bright, highly motivated young people for use elsewhere, the Government is liable to face united opposition from both students and universities.

If the Government is going to win acceptance for its fees policy, extra money is needed for next year. But where is it to come from? The contingency reserve has already been raided. The health service needs more money. Within education, schools have priority. The only hope of finding the short-term money needed lies in privatising loans.

It is said that the Government's reluctance to take the necessary political initiative to shift the loans off the public books is due to fear of an adverse reaction from the City. If so, Mr Blair should take one of those tough decisions he relishes and demonstrate that education, and not the City, is indeed his top priority. Otherwise he may find his tough, but right, decision on fees coming unstuck as Parliament returns and students take to the streets.

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