Tut-tutting over the fantastic elastic education system

August 22, 1997

I think the Government got it more right than Sir Ron Dearing. Apparently they have both found in higher education that rare commodity for which demand is perfectly inelastic - we can increase participation at the same time as putting up the charge to the consumer.

There is, of course, an important difference between the Government and Sir Ron.

One believes that the state should support maintenance with a safety net means test. The other believes in abolishing maintenance support but applying the means test to fee payments.

From the customer's point of view this difference might just be a detail. However, the Government's approach will speed up the process whereby most students do not move home in order to study.

This offers little hope to those who live at a distance from any provision unless, of course, the Government intends to change the map of provision and create some new universities in places like Cornwall. For many the answer will have to be in open learning and part-time study.

But the idea that home-based learning reduces the need for maintenance support has only a limited truth. For older students maintenance support replaces wages or unemployment benefit. We simply do not know if loans or graduate tax will prove popular for the old or the young. What we do know is that, in the lands from which these ideas have been taken (Australia, apparently, and not just the United States, is now our model), fee charges and little or no maintenance support changes the pattern of study.

To put it simply, tomorrow's student is likely to combine work and study to a larger degree than has been apparent even in recent years. This effectively elongates the period it takes to get a (modular) degree.

Alternatively - or worse, in addition - rich parents will pay and the not so rich will take out long term saving plans to help their Janes and Johns through to their mid twenties.

Writing in condemnation of the introduction of fees (The Times, July 18) Professor Cohn-Sherbok points out that in America it can cost $120,000 to graduate. All this is a godsend for insurance salesmen.

What is fascinating is the ease with which the community seems to accept the double whammy of the removal of maintenance grant and the payment towards fees. The principle that virtually all education should be free at the point of consumption has gone overnight. Of course some will say that a Pounds 1,000 contribution to fees still means massive state support. But who will determine, in the future, whether or not the Pounds 1,000 is enough?

The natural question is where will the windfall of more students paying more fees go. Kennedy Mark One seemed to suggest a redistribution of the government savings to further education. Clearly, unless something is done to rescue further education from the abuse of recent funding arrangements there will not be the flow of qualified students to prove the point that demand for higher education has a peculiar elasticity.

Keith Scribbins is chair of governors at City of Bristol College.

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