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Tuesday, 19 May, 1998, 20:55 GMT 21:55 UK
Student tuition fees: costly changes
"The decision to introduce tuition fees was not David Blunkett's finest hour..."
I broadcast those words in a television news report last summer. I went on to say that the decision attracted "criticism from, not only students, but from his own backbenchers as well."
Within seconds of the broadcast my phone rang. On the other end, a Department for Education press officer was erupting with anger, challenging me to justify my words.
Up to that date, most of the new government's announcements on its pet subject, education, had been relatively uncontroversial. It had been hard to find anyone who could find a fundamental flaw in policies such as setting targets for reading standards for 11-year-olds or cutting infant class sizes.
The ending of the principle of free higher education was different. Lord Glenamara who, as Ted Short, had been Labour's Education Secretary in the late 60s, declared in the House of Lords that he was ashamed to be a member of the party.
The MP Ken Livingstone accused his party's ministers of whipping away a ladder of opportunity which they themselves had climbed. Certainly, this was NOT David Blunkett's finest hour, and the swiftness with which press officers were attempting to eradicate even such anodyne claims only confirmed the anxieties and sensitivities of ministers - if not about the decision itself, then certainly about its presentation.
Since the announcement ministers and their supporters have rehearsed their case in defence of tuition fees time and again. Under the Conservatives, the numbers of students swelled, challenging the elitism of our university system in a way which was generally welcomed; but, at the same time, public spending on higher education was cut. Vice Chancellors were warning they couldn't go on much longer, especially if, as seemed desirable, student numbers were expected to increase even further.
All the main political parties accepted the need to invest more money in universities. Armed with the fact that graduates tend to earn more than those without degrees, supporters of tuition fees - including the New Labour government - asked students to sign the cheque. It was only fair, ministers argued, that they should contribute towards the education which turned them into potential higher earners.
The decision was in line with recommendations made by Ron Dearing who had been appointed by the previous government to chair an inquiry into the future of the whole higher education system and who, having carried out other inquiries into the national curriculum and the future of A levels, had come to be something of an education "Mr Fixit".
Had the Conservatives won the election it is almost certain they would also have introduced tuition fees. However, where New Labour was distinctive was to go even further and announce the abolition of student maintenance grants as well. Labour had promised to scrap the grant to cover student living costs in its manifesto, so the announcement should have come as no surprise.
However, together they represent one of Labour's most radical education policies, and it means that from October 1998 tuition fees come in; student grants go out. The fees, of up to £1,000 a year, represent a quarter of the average cost of a course.
Within the legislation which will introduce the charges, it is proposed that no Secretary of State can increase that proportion without the support of Parliament nor without consulting the team of MPs from all parties which makes up the Education Select Committee.
This move is designed to deal with the "thin end of the wedge" argument - the critics who have predicted that, in time, the cost of going to university will escalate dramatically.
Nevertheless, the new arrangements for financing a degree are still being met with opposition from certain quarters. Some of this hostility may spring from justified anxiety; some may be a function of misunderstanding and mythology.
For a start, it is not true that every full-time undergraduate starting this October will be charged the full tuition fee. In fact, the government estimates, most will not - the reason being that the charges are designed to be made according to ability to pay, so students' families will be means tested.
Families earning less than approximately £23,000 a year will be exempt from fees. The government suggests that represents about a third of students.
Another third is the group of students whose families earn between £23,000 and £35,000 a year. They will be charged, on a sliding scale, part of the fees.
The final third of students, whose families earn more than £35,000, will be charged the full fee of £1,000 a year.
The government expects parents to pay the fees, but the changes to the way students' living costs are financed mean parents will no longer be expected to make a contribution to that; so, ministers insist, parents should not be paying more in future than they were before.
There is arguably an injustice in this arrangement. Given that one of the principles behind charging students for their tuition at university is that those students, by virtue of gaining a degree-level education, are likely to go on to be higher earners, why should the level of tuition fees be based on the income of that student's family? Do not graduates who come from poor families have, in principle, the same earning potential as graduates from rich ones?
Here some critics have detected a leap of logic. The means-tested student grant is to be replaced by larger loans. Graduates will only be expected to repay them while they are earning a minimum of £10,000 a year, and the pay-back period will be longer than at present.
The government claims that under the present system graduates earning £17,000 repay up to £30 a week. But under the new system, the same graduate would be repaying £12 a week.
Part-timers pay already
The precise implications of the introduction of tuition fees and the abolition of student grants lie, of course, in the future. It is true that David Blunkett will go down in history as the education secretary who ended the principle of free higher education.
But it is also true that a degree-level education has not been free to all students for some time: part-time students, who represent about a third of the undergraduate population, have been contributing to their tuition costs for years.
Some confidently predict that tuition fees will deter many youngsters from going on to university. The admission figures for this autumn suggest that, so far, that is not the case, as far as school leavers are concerned.
There does, however, appear to be a drop in the number of applications from mature students. The prospect of paying tuition fees might be an influential factor amongst this group, especially since they are usually people who already have heavier financial commitments.
Despite the great expansion in the numbers of people going on to university in the last two decades, critics believe higher education is still too much of a white, middle class preserve.
The Prime Minister has said he wants an extra half a million students to join further or higher education by 2002, but the government must be judged not just by the numbers of people taking degrees but by whether the social profile of the student population widens as well.
Observers will want to investigate whether tuition fees and the abolition of grants helps or hinders that aim.
Finally, there is the issue of whether the sacrifice of free tuition will solve the original problem: the funding gap faced by universities.
In March 1998 Diana Warwick, the chief executive of the organisation which represents university vice chancellors, said in a message to the government: "Fees alone cannot solve our crisis."
As with all pleas for extra funds, it's hard to tell whether the demands are based on need or desire.
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