An anomaly too far onuniversity tuition fees

31st October 1997 at 00:00
Anomalies often prove virulent. No sooner is one eradicated than another appears. Brian Wilson, who had university tuition fees foisted on him rather than being converted to the need for them, has tried manfully to protect Scottish students from the worst effects of Government policy. At every opportunity he points out that 40 per cent of students will not pay fees. Their family incomes are too low, and since a main worry about the effect of fees and the abolition of maintenance grants is on the uptake of higher education by less well-off students, his reassurances should carry weight.

That they do not is partly because groups opposing the changes, led by students themselves, successfully obfuscate the point and partly because the minister has to spend time troubleshooting. When successive anomalies appear and need to be tackled, the logic of the case for reform is seriously dented.

Mr Wilson clearly foresaw flaws in his approach to the latest problem, which he tried to counter on Monday. He told the annual forum of higher education principals that the need to establish "equity" by protecting Scottish students from a fourth year of tuition fees, which students south of the border would escape because of a three-year honours system, could be met without creating a fresh anomaly. But by insisting that English, Welsh and Northern Irish students would not react to discrimination by boycotting Scottish universities he exposed the weakness of his own solution.

The extent to which higher education is price sensitive remains unproven. Students from outwith Scotland who are prepared to devote a year of potential earning power to completing degrees which they might finish earlier elsewhere may continue to come even with an extra Pounds 1,000 to pay. It is the fact of discrimination that has caused the opposition, not just estimates of its effect on student numbers. In these educationally litigious times when students are encouraged to make demands on the suppliers of education, a legal challenge is likely, and the principals immediately realised that.

When Sir Ron Dearing spoke to the forum he was generous about the Government's decision to impose its own funding solution in preference to that of the Dearing committee. He accepted that David Blunkett as Secretary of State had plumped for the option that appeared to have the least drawbacks, especially to access. But the problems which Mr Blunkett and Mr Wilson are now encountering result from the unnecessary rush to judgment. Had the funding options been left to the consultation process with the other recommendations in the Dearing and Garrick reports, some of the drawbacks the Government is being forced to address would have come out in the debates.

If the purpose of instant decision-taking was to allow extra money to be allocated to higher education in the knowledge that a new source of income would come onstream some years later, it is strange that, months after, Scottish universities are still awaiting an announcement about the financial relief they are due.

Principals are concerned about uncertainties in the short and longer term. They are not alone in looking for better information. At this time of year schools are advising senior pupils about university applications. No one knows the exact conditions on which entry next autumn will depend. The sons and daughters of better off parents who themselves experienced higher education will enrol whatever the final decisions. The students who may be deterred by anxiety and lack of knowledge come from the social groups whose interests Mr Wilson professes to care most about. His commitment to broadening access need not be questioned. The anomalies that become obstacles to access do cast doubt on the Government's forethought and wisdom.

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