Biddy Passmore finds contrasting advice for students wanting to go on to higher education. Sixth-formers should not allow themselves to be panicked into accepting any higher education place they are offered this autumn by the threat of university tuition fees from 1997.
That is the message coming from schools and universities after alarmist stories at the weekend that the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service was advising potential students to enrol in higher education this autumn to avoid having to pay a minimum of Pounds 300 in tuition fees next year.
Tony Higgins, chief executive of UCAS, was quoted as saying that students who want to delay taking up places should think again. "We are saying: if you have a place this year you should take it, otherwise you might be caught out by a fee next year. Our recommendation is, don't waste a year improving grades. "
But this advice, which does not appear in the UCAS handbook or the official guide to 1997 courses , both currently being distributed to schools, was described as "flesh-creeping" by one insider. And a spokesman for the vice-chancellors' committee suggested it might be a ploy to boost student numbers.
The universities may well retreat from their threat to impose fees, which they made last autumn after the Government slashed their capital spending by 30 per cent. A joint working group of civil servants and vice-chancellors is expected to support the universities' contention that the cut will damage the quality of higher education, and is making the vice-chancellors hopeful of better treatment this November.
The working group's study of the Private Finance Initiative in higher education will show that universities cannot rely on private sources to make up the loss.
A separate report on the state of university research equipment, prepared for the three higher education funding councils and published yesterday, showed that four out of five departments are unable to perform critical experiments because of lack of funds for equipment.
Government dismay at the universities' threat to impose fees was one factor leading to the setting up of the Dearing Review of higher education. But many universities say they cannot wait for its outcome to make a decision on fees, as its report will not be published until next summer.
However, as John Sutton, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, pointed out this week, it is most unlikely that fees will be common in 1997. "Some universities may break ranks, but it's unlikely there'll be a general move before Dearing," he said.
"The possibility of tuition fees is another factor students have to take into account if they're trying to decide whether to accept an offer or defer entry - but it can't be more than that because no decision on tuition fees has yet been taken," a UCAS spokesman said.
David Blunkett, Labour's education spokesman, has ruled out tuition fees nationally, although the Dearing review is expected to recommend them, along with an Australian-style graduate tax.
The London School of Economics is to publish costings of the kind of loan proposed by Labour, showing a student who borrowed a total of Pounds 12, 000 would pay less than Pounds 2 a month over 20 years.