Plastering over the cracks

The exercise in picking up the pieces has begun. David Blunkett's announcement this week that the universities are to receive a Pounds 165 million cash injection represents a welcome attempt to sort out the muddle created by the Government's ill-thought-out response to the Dearing report back in July.

Education watchers have been mystified as to why the original decision to reject Dearing's key recommendations was made so precipitately. The whole debacle suggests that education ministers were pushed along too fast by a Treasury determined to start the flow of revenue as early as possible.

Now Mr Blunkett, who aims to raise the participation rate in higher education to 35 per cent by the next election, must retrieve the initiative before next week's party conference.

This week's announcements, though, bear all the signs of a hastily-applied sticking-plaster. Much of the revenue will come from restructuring the student loans scheme - a one-off saving. Next academic year, students' tuition fees will be paid into a ring-fenced fund to be spent on "lifelong learning", but with no guarantee that in future years it would not be siphoned off by the Treasury.

The new arrangements mean that students from low-income families will have their fee contribution waived entirely, but it is not clear at what income level the complete fee will kick in, nor how the sliding scale will work. Current calculations suggest that only one in three students will end up paying the full Pounds 1,000 a year, while another third will pay at various reduced levels.

Maintenance grants are to be phased out by 1999, and replaced by loans - but the level of loan required for 1998 is still uncertain. This means that many students now applying to university have no idea of whether they can afford to go. It is tempting to ask whether the relatively meagre amounts of revenue generated by the new scheme will have been worth all the upheaval and bad publicity.

It seems that the Government was caught out by the gulf between what is common knowledge to those in education, and what the public are aware of. It had been assumed for some years that student tuition fees had to come, as the only way of getting new money into higher education. Even the Dearing report treated the imposition of the Pounds 1,000 a year contribution (with no waivers) as relatively uncontroversial - so long as the maintenance grant was to be continued.

But the public outcry over the fee announcement - even with the waivers - seems to have been unexpected; Labour's spin doctors, whose understanding of education issues has always been slender, were not on task. "The end of free higher education" was a headline every newspaper reader and television viewer could grasp. Many were bewildered that a Labour government should be taking such a step.

Now, piecemeal attempts to soften the new policy - helpfully described By the Liberal Democrats as a "student poll tax" - are proliferating: Pounds 36 million for hardship funds; Pounds 4 million to expand sub-degree courses; money to help student teachers; special arrangements for trainee doctors and dentists.

But the main task now is to regain the confidence of would-be students and their families. Otherwise, the big numbers entering the system this autumn in a bid to beat the imposition of fees, could be followed by a sudden fall in the participation rate in 1998 and 1999, derailing the Government's efforts to open up higher education to a wider range of people. Stand By your desks for the hearts and minds campaign.

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