Chaos in the clearing system

From the outset it looked a mistake for the Government to overturn the Dearing committee's recommendation on student finance before the committee's report had even been published. Comeuppance has been rapid and awkward. No one - probably not even ubiquitous Peter Mandelson - knows what to do about "gap" students.

There are two related problems. One group have deferred entry to university, that is, they have booked a place but for 1998, not this autumn. Therefore they face the tuition fees which the Government has decreed, flying in the face of Dearing's recommendation. They say they should be excused the first-year's fee because of the arrangement they have with their future university. The other group are students, proudly clutching their week-old Highers or their A-levels received yesterday, who decide that free higher education this year is better than waiting to cough up Pounds 1,000 in 1998.

The Government could ignore the second group and let the market decide the issue. There will be extra pressure on places this autumn. So universities will either take more applicants or be more rigorous in selection. In a perfect market that might work, although the universities would be hard pressed and some students would find themselves with the rough end of the stick. But the funding councils do not allow universities to expand and contract willy-nilly. Therefore the Government cannot escape responsibility for addressing the problem of supply and demand.

The "gap" students raise a legal issue. They may be able to prove a contract with a university on existing cost terms. If they are to be excused first-year fees, how is their group to be separated from other entrants and how is their "gap" activity to be assessed? Is going walkabout for 12 months less worthy of recognition than voluntary service overseas or at home? Why has a three-month "gap" occupation been suggested as the way to fee exemption? And why is there the slightest doubt that Scottish students should be treated like those in the south? Answers will come only from hard graft by officials, not by spin doctoring.

"Persuading my children to make the effort might be tricky if I did little more than amble through my own syllabus"

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