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If students must pay, who should pay what?

I interviewed two groups of students last month in the same further education college. Both groups are studying for a Higher National Certificate part-time. They shed different lights on the current debate about support for students in higher education. Both sharply underline the need for a broad approach which gets us away from the blinkered arguments about free higher education.

The first group is doing automotive engineering. Most are quite young - late teens or early twenties - and few of them have any employment record worth talking about, though one has given up a secure job to come on the course. They are financed from the European Social Fund, but this does not stretch to cover books or overalls. Their main complaint is the hassle they get from social security, while struggling to keep up with the demands of the course.

Although part-time, it requires many hours of work outside the classroom in addition to the 15 hours of guided study. If they admit that they are putting everything they can into completing their assignments, the fear is that the next fortnight will not bring a dole cheque. The course content is good, but few of them are optimistic about the employment opportunities being there to reward their achievements.

The other group is studying social care. They are all employed in relevant occupations, all bar one full-time. Many are working shifts, but they make every effort to attend the twice-weekly three-hour twilight classes. For some this is the lead-in to a night shift of caring for residents of homes for the elderly, or the follow-on from a day spent coping with disturbed youngsters. Only two have their fees - over Pounds 500 - paid for them. But the actual cost is not their major complaint, which is the lack of recognition from their employers of the efforts they are making. In spite of the stresses, the atmosphere in this class is full of energy, an appreciation of the value and enjoyment of learning again.

Neither of these groups will come anywhere near benefiting from the student grant system in its current form. For the former, it means penetrating to an academic level which makes little sense to them. For the latter, it would mean giving up jobs to which they are committed, and which their family responsibilities require them to maintain.

It never fails to amaze me how many people choose to ignore the historic realities of student finance. It has been one of the great regressive forces in the British welfare system.

Learning pays, but it pays far better for graduates than for anyone else. Those who gain intermediate qualifications enjoy much less of an advantage over those with no qualifications than holders of degrees do over them. But it is simply not credible to argue that student support of the same kind as is given to full-time undergraduates should be extended to the groups I interviewed.

This is why the debate should be about what kinds of contribution can reasonably be expected from which types of student. Central to this must be the principle of equitable treatment for full and part-timers. This is one issue which the defenders of the golden past skirt quickly round. Another is the current concentration of support on degree-level work. Just what is the rationale for this?

I welcome the setting out by the Labour party of its preferred approach to student funding in spite of the cheap brickbats it knew it would collect. Better late than never - the declaration has been a long time coming, and it can now be tarred with the brush of the failed current loan system. But it pushes open the door to a roomful of opportunities and the 20-year payback period is suitably longterm.

Let us not just talk about money, though. Time is crucial to successful study. It may be simpler for employers to pay the fees than to give time off. But why not give them an incentive, if they really need it, by lowering the cost of giving people study leave: for the hours where employees are studying in company time, no National Insurance would be levied. This might do quite a lot to revive day release and a range of other forms of what was once called paid educational leave.

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