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Tuesday, 6 March, 2001, 12:15 GMT
Higher education
Higher education applicants by social group
When it comes to attention-grabbing headlines on education, higher education tends to be the poor relation.

Education is a matter devolved to the Scottish Parliament and Welsh and Northern Ireland assemblies - and Westminster MPs have limited influence over education policy in these parts of the United Kingdom. For more information see our full guide to devolution.


BACKGROUND

Most people have at least a passing interest in schooling, either as a parent, a grandparent, an aunt or an uncle - or simply to say "it wasn't like that in my day".

Politicians know that announcements on schools will give them greater coverage - and ultimately more influence at the ballot box - than announcements on higher education.

But there are always exceptions to the rule, such as the case of Laura Spence.

Last summer, this state school sixth former from the north-east of England took higher education to the top of the news agenda.

Chancellor Gordon Brown's comment that is was an "absolute scandal" that she had been rejected by Oxford University sent shock waves through the education sector and through the Commons.

The case brought new emphasis to the debate on access to higher education.

Were state school pupils getting a fair chance of getting into Oxbridge? Were universities reaching out sufficiently to youngsters from non-traditional intake backgrounds?

With maintenance grants gone and tuition fees in, was the cost of being a student discriminating against poorer students?

PARTIES AT BLOWS

Just before the Spence row, a Commons education select committee inquiry was set up to examine the state of play in higher education.

But the three main political parties came to blows, failing to agree when the committee reported in February.

"We decided not to examine in detail the individual case of the young woman cited in the Chancellor's remarks," the report said.

The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats accused Labour MPs of conspiring to produce a report favourable to the government and were angered that Mr Brown's comments were not condemned.

But while quick to criticise the government's condemnation of the UK's top universities for not widening access, both the Tories and the Lib Dems say making higher education available to all - no matter what their background - is a priority.

Higher education should be "accessible, irrespective of the ability to pay", the Tories say.

'Freeing up' universities

The party says it would scrap tuition fees - a yearly flat rate, currently 1,050, introduced for students by Labour from September 1998 - and "set universities free" from red tape and government control.

Graduates would not have to start paying back student loans until their income topped 20,000 a year, compared with Labour's threshold of 10,000.

And the Conservatives pledge not to introduce "top-up fees".

"We want to set universities free to grow and to recover their global pre-eminence," the Tories say.

They would do this by giving establishments wanting to opt out of state control an endowment of up to 1bn.

This would be funded from future government receipts from, for example, auctions of radio spectrum, future privatisation proceeds and asset sales.

Endowed universities would be "freed from many of the existing financial and regulatory constraints that prevent them offering the courses, and hiring the staff they need".

And in return for endowing a university, a Tory government would require it to provide proper access funds for the "most deserving students".

LEARNING ACCOUNTS

The Liberal Democrats say they are also dedicated to fair access.

"A properly funded education system, open to all, promotes freedom by giving people the chance to excel, and providing a route out of poverty," the Lib Dems say.

They too would abolish tuition fees and would re-introduce maintenance grants.

The party would set up individual learning accounts for students, funded by the government, individuals and employers.

Extra funds should be made available for mature and disabled students and flexible life-long learning must be encouraged, especially for women studying part-time, the Lib Dems say.

TUITION FEES

Labour swept to power in the last election uttering the catchphrase "education, education, education".

The party's attack on the UK's leading universities last summer was an attempt to show they were serious about giving young people from "disadvantaged" backgrounds the chance to get a university degree.

In the autumn, Labour announced that an extra 131m would be invested in getting such students to apply for university places.

The "Excellence Challenge" is due to be spent over three years: 33m this year, 56m the year after and 62m in 2003/4.

But Labour angered students with the introduction of tuition fees for students from England and Wales - and these are set to rise 25 to 1,075 in the next academic year.

SCOTTISH ANOMALY

Prior to devolution the government decided that Scottish students should not pay tuition fees for the final year of a degree course, if it was a year longer than the comparable course in England and Wales - as honours degrees in Scotland typically are.

Students from elsewhere in the UK who are at Scottish universities however have to pay their own fees. This so-called "Scottish anomaly" has proved highly contentious.

The government got the legislation through Parliament in 1998 only by promising an independent review of the working of fees.

The fees themselves have provoked strong opposition from some students, with a number of temporary sit-ins and refusals to pay.

They became a major issue in the elections to the new Scottish Parliament.

In the end, an independent committee on student finance - the Cubie Committee - was set up as a result of the coalition deal between Labour and the Liberal Democrats.

Among 52 recommendations, Cubie said tuition fees should be replaced with a system under which graduates would pay 3,000 once they were earning 25,000.

The Scottish Executive did decide to scrap up-front tuition fees for Scottish students at Scottish universities, with graduates contributing 2,000 to a fund for new hardship grants, starting to pay this when their earnings are at least 10,000.

Students must also pay off any loans incurred during their study.

NORTHERN IRELAND

The Northern Ireland Assembly has also looked into the possibility of abolishing of tuition fees and introducing grants.

But it found this would prove too costly and would also contravene equality measures, because giving free tuition to all would benefit the rich more than the disadvantaged.

So, for now at least, tuition fees remain a reality in Northern Ireland.

Although students taking up studies in subjects like engineering, computing and tourism - perceived to be of benefit to the economy - will not have to pay the fees.

And bursaries of up to 1,500 will be made available over the next three years to 14,000 higher education students from less wealthy backgrounds.

As for "top-up fees", the Education Secretary, David Blunkett, has said they will remain outlawed for the duration of the next parliament, if Labour wins the election - though some universities are not convinced.

LECTURER'S PAY

But it is not only students who are concerned about money - their lecturers and support staff have been involved in a long-running dispute over pay and working conditions.

Unions say their members need a much bigger rise to make academics' pay comparable with other professions and want the imbalance between pay for men and women addressed.


In a few years' time there will be too few of the right people in higher education, unless a remedy is found right now

Sir Michael Bett
In January, university lecturers held a rally in central London, where they presented a petition to university vice-chancellors signed by 25,000 people.

And staff at the new universities (formerly polytechnics and colleges) have been involved in a work-to-rule which included refusing to cover for colleagues' and withholding students' marks.

Their stance was backed by the Association of University Teachers, which represents academic staff at the old universities, and the National Union of Students.

The action was suspended after the Universities and Colleges' Employers Association agreed to re-enter talks with unions.

Sir Michael Bett - author of a landmark report on higher education pay and conditions - told a Commons education select committee inquiry that the higher education sector was heading for a crisis, with too many young researchers put off staying in the profession.

"In a few years' time there will be too few of the right people in higher education, unless a remedy is found right now," Sir Michael told MPs in January.

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