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Editorial: Poor will pay most

By the time the Dearing report came out on Wednesday, it had been so comprehensively hyped, leaked, and responded-to-in-advance, that it already seemed like old news. But unexpectedly, the Government response to it has provoked the first really big row since May 1; and the subject is the time-honoured theme of the rights of the poor to higher education.

The message has been for some time that the halcyon days of free degrees for all are numbered. But one of the most impressive aspects of Sir Ron's magnum opus is that he refused to let funding dominate his report, preferring to start from first principles. What role should higher education play in 21st-century Britain? Only when his committee had established this to their satisfaction did they turn their attention to money - even though this question has loomed threateningly over parents, students and the universiti es themselves for more than a decade.

Sir Ron's committee concluded that higher education should aim to develop the capacities of individuals; to increase knowledge and understanding for their own sakes; to serve the needs of the economy; and to play a major role in shaping a civilised society.

Then it turned its attention to the fact that this could not be achieved without enormously increasing the proportion of young people who had access to higher education - and this in turn could not be done without opening up a new source of finance.

British policies of higher education have until recently been unashamedly litist. Policies aimed at boosting overall participation have repeatedly provoked an orgy of agonising over "levelling down", "more means worse" and other restrictive clichs which look very strange to most other countries.

At the same time free higher education - like many other aspects of the post-war welfare state - has benefited the middle classes disproportionately. For example, the building of the new universities in the 1960s resulted mainly in more degrees for middle-class girls. This may well have been a desirable outcome; but it offers a telling example of how the strength of the British class system tends to negate well-meaning efforts to improve the lot of those further down the ladder.

Now Sir Ron has come out quite clearly for a mass system. No more agonising: participation should be widened, with up to 45 per cent of the age group going to university. All students should have work experience, whatever their degree subject; universities should raise the quality and consistency of what they are offering, through a complete overhaul of the system of external examiners, and the development of a teaching qualification for higher education. Everyone would pay a flat-rate tuition fee; those from the poorest families would still receive a government grant for living expenses.

In this way, Sir Ron most astutely made a virtue out of a necessity. Since in the future students will have to pay, it follows as a principle of natural justice (to say nothing of the market) that what they pay for should be demonstrably worth the money. The universities have, by and large, been keen on the prospect of tuition fees; now they will have to deliver their side of the bargain to a wide range of young people who will in many cases have put themselves in debt for the sake of their education.

The Government's role in all this, however, has been less than edifying. Not only were they briefing journalists against some of the report's recommendations before it was even published; but their decision to scrap maintenance grants looks likely to damage the prospects of students from the most hard-up families. Although David Blunkett has announced that for them the #163;1,000 tuition fee would be waived, the loss of the grant means that the least wealthy would end up having to pay back the most.

The world of higher education - and many middle-class parents - had braced themselves for tuition fees, and for an increase in student debt. What no-one had expected, and Dearing did not recommend, was the complete abolition of the grant - a lifeline for the most impoverished, and one of the reasons why British higher education has a much lower drop-out rate than in most other countries.

Yet again the system looks set to benefit the well-off most - and wider participation now looks less likely than it did this time last week. That a Labour government should have laid themselves open to accusations from Stephen Dorrell, the Conservative education spokesman, that they are "picking the pockets" of the most impoverished families (how he must have enjoyed himself) is more than mystifying. It is shocking.

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