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The plot thickens on student fees;Leading Article;Opinion

THE CUBIE committee is already coming under pressure to play down the tuition fees issue in favour of wider consideration of student finance. University principals reacted with alarm as fees took the spotlight when Labour and the Liberal Democrats were forming their coalition. Since Lib Dem sources continue to mutter darkly about the collapse of the Government if fees remain, the universities are determined to keep up the pressure on their side of the argument.

Yet if Andrew Cubie and his colleagues were tempted to sideline the fees debate and ignore political pressures, they will have been drawn up short by reports of mounting problems as fees remain unpaid. Downing Street told universities to handle students sensitively, which they have done so far to their cost: grants are reduced by the amount students are expected to pay, not by the sums collected.

Non-payment cannot be allowed to become prevalent, a benchmark of political commitment like refusal to pay the poll tax. So the pressure on Mr Cubie increases. Yet since it was the Government's rejection of the Dearing committee's ideas on student support which made fees so contentious, a look at its report would help the Cubie inquiry in its deliberations. The Dearing principle was that students should pay for their education - and consequent enhanced earnings capacity - but after they graduated rather than in their undergraduate years.

When Dearing reported immediately after the 1997 election, the Chancellor of the Exchequer was stamping on new spending. Funding students through loans on the expectation of later returns offended Treasury orthodoxy. There is now less of a financial and political case against offsetting fees by loans. The political case for getting rid of fees is correspondingly stronger and will become more so if universities introduce sanctions such as refusing degrees or even expelling students.

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