THE FALL in applications to university by mature students, particularly older mature students, should set alarm bells ringing in Whitehall. These figures are the first real evidence of the effect of government policies on participation. They suggest strongly that fear of debt is differentially deterring older people from going into higher education to improve their qualifications.
This is not surprising. Policies announced so far will weigh most heavily on these mature students. Older students give up work to study. They often have families and mortgages. They cannot rely on parents. They may need to study longer than school-leavers if they lack entry qualifications for a degree course. With the abolition of grants and the introduction of fees, the price of a degree is going up sharply and most sharply for those who would once have qualified for grants.
Self-supporting older students are those least likely to be able to afford the extra cost. They are also, such are the prejudices of many graduate recruiters, less likely than younger high fliers to be in the group that can expect to command large starting salaries, and possible golden hellos, when they graduate. For them investment in a degree is not so obviously advantageous as it is for younger students still supported by their parents.
Meanwhile, with applications from mature students down but those from younger students scarcely changed, sixth-formers with modest A levels who enjoy plenty of support from home and good preparation at school are going to find it easier to get a university place. These are the people whose lifetime earnings will be most dramatically affected by having a degree.
As so often, government policy appears to be having exactly the opposite effect to that intended: lifelong learning and wider access are being discouraged.
Thus do the penalties of incoherent policy-making have their effect. When it was elected the government promised to give priority to education. It has done a lot to pull schools round but beyond that there has been too little decision-taking. It is not that the groundwork was lacking. The government inherited a number of studies, either complete or in progress, that mapped the issues on 16-19 qualifications, on further education and higher education. What was needed was clear decisions, hard ones of course. A white paper was promised for October that would set out a coherent vision of lifelong learning in the learning society. The necessary legislation was expected to follow.
Nothing so orderly has happened. Instead a series of piecemeal moves has landed the education and employment department in an unedifying muddle with its white paper pulped. Hasty decisions over higher education students' support and fees were taken in isolation before other policies were sorted out. As a result, the department found both itself and Downing Street under siege from the university interests led by Oxford and Cambridge with their own special axes to grind. The room for reordering policy for post-16 education and training was constrained when it needed to be considered across the board.
While that consideration was supposed to be going on, dribs and drabs of extra money were found to tide universities and colleges over - further modest sums were announced this week to boost information technology in further education colleges and oil the wheels of college mergers. Plans to give all young employees the right to time off work for training are being whittled away thanks to special pleading from employers. Plans to transform training seem to be mired in a power struggle between training and enterprise councils and the designers of the new regional development agencies over which is to have control of the training budget.
The notion of "lifelong learning" is turning from an all-inclusive, society-wide aspiration to a form of compulsory welfare - those who left school without qualifications are to be set to learn the minimum necessary to hold down a job. And the government has got embroiled with a thoroughly unsatisfactory piece of legislation in the Teaching and Higher Education Bill, which seeks to do indirectly what it cannot constitutionally do directly: force universities to charge fees and control the amount of those fees.
Now, instead of the promised big picture we are to have a "spring consultation on the lifelong learning agenda". Familiar stuff. The education world does debates: ask Baroness Williams, who presided over the Great Debate during the Callaghan government 20 years ago. This time there are to be debates on college governance (more local councillors), on 16-19 qualifications (but no scrapping A levels), the University for Industry (more referral agency than university), learning accounts (now less in favour thanks to employers' lack of enthusiasm).
Thus shall we while away the time until the only important decision now on the horizon is made - by someone else. For what the education world does not do is decisions. The only decisions that matter will be made by the Treasury at the end of its public spending review. And because the education world and its lead department have not been able to decide a clear policy to fight for in respect of post-16 education, those decisions will be both more prescriptive and less radical than they might otherwise have been.
In this situation the vision set out in Helena Kennedy's report, Learning Works, of a major reorientation of policy so as to bring those who fail into the education net, looks distinctly blurred. If the redraftings and delays of recent months meant that the new policy when announced is well thought through and coherent, fine. But it looks now as if it is not so much a matter of getting it right as an inability to get it together that has sunk the white paper.
What is needed now is that the education secretary, David Blunkett, turn his full attention to untangling the post-16 muddle. It is not something that can be delegated to his ministerial team. Indeed sorting it at all will require considerable political will.
It will also require broader collaboration with his colleagues in the Cabinet - John Prescott, whose department is in charge of regional development agencies and local authorities, Margaret Beckett, who has charge of science and is the link to industry, and Harriet Harman, who is struggling with welfare reform. Together they are a powerful group within the Cabinet not easily pushed about even by the Treasury and the prime minister.
Between them they will need to stop the present kowtowing to employers: training entitlement must become a reality. Unequal funding between schools and colleges after 16 must end. Qualifications must be sorted out and that means going wholeheartedly for the baccalaureate: fudging and mudging over bridges and pathways will never work.
Above all, the Treasury must be bullied into changing the accounting rules for student loans so that cash is released immediately. (The case for this is set out once again in the latest edition of the Political Quarterly by Nick Barr and Iain Crawford.) Radical change costs.
Without money the government will not be able to overcome the resistance of those who have no choice but to fight to hold on to what they have. That is what has destroyed their policy so far. It will go on doing so unless this knot is cut.