Rich resist the gap trap

One of the most intriguing spin-offs from last week's shenanigans over fees for higher education has been that the hitherto obscure and inoffensive phrase "gap year" now has the power to freeze the blood of a minister of state. Suddenly, the innocent plans of the nation's youthful Henriettas and Olivers - to roam the world doing good before they take up their deferred university places - became an explosive political issue.

Baroness Blackstone may have fielded this hot potato successfully with her U-turn last week, which waived the Pounds 1,000 annual fee for gap-year students who were due to take up their places in 1998. But she might find herself dropping it again, when it becomes clear that many of the people who will not have to pay the new fees could easily have afforded to. Some will only recently have stopped paying around Pounds 12,000 a year for the schooling of their university-bound offspring.

Ministers had, reportedly, realised that students taking a year out would be hit; but they had not focused on the issue because most of those affected would be reasonably well-off. Would Pounds 3,000 over three years really be worth fighting for? Answer: Yes.

Clearly, ministers had forgotten the outcry which had greeted the tentative efforts of Sir Keith Joseph to reform university funding in the early 1980s. Confronted by the massed ranks of middle-class voters threatened with the loss of the maintenance grant, Sir Keith lost his nerve and retreated to agonise over something else.

The scale of the last week's uproar similarly smacks of a well-orchestrated defence of privilege; particularly since organised gap years, complete with voluntary work abroad and a deferred university place, are almost entirely the province of the public schools. Other young people taking a year out before applying to university - who wanted to see their A-level results first, or who need to earn some money before they embark on their degree courses - will still have to pay.

Meanwhile the chaos continues: late applications in some universities are up by more than a third, but places are fewer since good results mean that more applicants have met their targets. The fees announcement at the end of July led some young people with deferred places to cancel them in a panic and apply elsewhere for 1997. Now they find they could have stuck with their original choice. What about European students who want to study in Britain? Will we end up trying to means-test the French and the Italians? The piquant aroma of half-baked policy floats lazily above the Department for Education and Employment.

One of the most telling criticisms of the post-war welfare state has always been that too much public money is siphoned up by the people who know how to play the system. Free health care, free schooling, free higher education have always disproportionately benefited the middle classes. We should not be surprised that the only group which has succeeded in retaining free university education for a smidgen longer than anyone else includes some of the richest families in the land.

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