Footing the bill for social inclusion;Briefing;Analysis

21st May 1999 at 01:00
Middle-class parents' loss in tuition fees will be FE colleges' gain as the Government strives to increase student numbers. Jon Slater reports

For a Government often seen as running scared of the middle classes, scrapping grants and introducing fees for undergraduates was a bold move. It was the first real test of nerve for the Blair government and one which it passed - despite pressure from parents, the National Union of Students and its own backbenchers.

Over the next two years, public contributions to tuition fees will fall by almost half - to pound;520 million. The gap will be plugged from the pockets of better-off students and their parents. Attention has so far focused on the effect this will have on students' bank balances, but scant regard has been paid to what the extra cash will be used for.

Ministers argue that without this income, it would be impossible to lift the freeze on student numbers imposed by the Tories. In effect, they have told middle-class parents that unless they pay, their child could be one of those frozen out of university.

However, this apparently tough choice disguises a sleight of hand. The irony is that while the Labour left - including Tony Benn and Ken Livingstone - opposed fees, David Blunkett, the Education and Employment Secretary, quietly redirected the money towards the less well-off.

Mr Blunkett has repeatedly been challenged to guarantee that all the proceeds from fees will be given back to universities. He always seems happy to answer yes but careful to add "and further education".

In fact it is colleges, not universities, who will be the main beneficiaries. Cash for FE will rise by 15 per cent over the next two years, compared to 11 per cent for HE. More people will be given the chance of a university education, but undergraduates and their parents will also foot the bill for college students.

Even HE cash is being targeted away from traditional universities towards sub-degree courses and other measures to widen participation. It has been estimated that as many as half of the 100,000 new HE places planned over the next three years could be in FE colleges.

The effect on individual learners is stark. Even before fees were introduced, the cost of gaining a degree had increased dramatically. Government figures show that in the four years before fees, the value of loans taken out by HE students tripled.

With the end of grants and the introduction of fees (a typical three-year degree in England and Wales now costs a student pound;3,000 in fees alone) the National Union of Students estimates the average debt for students on graduation will be between pound;10,000 and pound;15,000.

Ben Dadds is in his first year of a four-year chemistry degree at Manchester University. He expects to be "in the region of pound;10,000 in debt" by the time he graduates. "My parents have been saving up since I was born to send me to university and suddenly now it costs an extra grand a year. Where is that going to come from?" he asked.

By contrast, after years of dwindling support, FE students may now be seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. Individual learning accounts for adults, education maintenance allowances for 16 to 18-year-olds and increased access funds for those who are hard-up could be the foundations of a system of college student support.

Gloucestershire training and enterprise council is one of 13 TECs which piloted ILAs. Margaret Goodhall used the opportunity to gain a Certificate in Management Studies and now manages a local youth centre. "The CMS gave me the knowledge and experience I needed to manage a team," she said. "The course costs were much more manageable with my skill account."

But this turn around in the fortunes of further and higher education should not come as a shock. The goals of FE suit the Government's social and economic agendas. One of the biggest supporters of this shift in finances is the Chancellor, Gordon Brown, who argues in today's TES that grants for sixth-formers will make a real difference to staying-on rates among disadvantaged young people.

More cash for colleges should mean a better second chance for those who have left school with few qualifications. The new deals for the unemployed rely on the ability of colleges to deliver relevant high-quality courses. And FE is the largest provider of 16-18 education - in which UK participation is still close to the bottom of the international league table.

While FE students are drawn from a wide variety of backgrounds, university students are still mainly from middle and upper-class families. Despite his new Labour makeover, when it comes to lifelong learning David Blunkett is happy to let his socialist roots show.

And evidence suggests that investing in FE also makes good economic sense. The first report of the national skills task force highlights a "major deficiency" in Britain's vocational skills. Less than half of Britain's workforce have intermediate level vocational qualifications. This compares to 65 per cent in France and almost three-quarters in Germany. By contrast, the UK has a higher proportion of graduates than our European competitors.

The report warns: "The argument that Germany's higher proportion of labour-qualified intermediate vocational level enables them to achieve higher productivity is fairly convincing."

The skills gap is a reflection of the funding imbalance between students in further and higher education. On average, we invest pound;4,700 per year in each HE student compared with pound;2,900 for each student in FE.

But both sectors have been losing out to schools in the past decade. Tony Travers, a government finance expert at the London School of Economics, describes this as the "doe-eyed children phenomenon". Spending money on children pays a higher political dividend for ministers than investing in the skills of adults.

So for the foreseeable future, governments of whatever political colour are likely to be forced to choose between academic and vocational courses, higher and intermediate-level learning and university and college students. Their decision will not only depend on their economic and social priorities but also on how willingly undergraduates and their families accept the changes.

In many ways, tuition fees amount to old Labour-style redistribution. Instead of tax and spend we have save and spend - one subsidy being removed and replaced with another. Despite the recent furore in Scotland, cash shortages in colleges and universities means the pressure to raise fees is likely to increase. Unless students and their parents revolt, we may yet see another raid on middle-class pockets.

The national skills task force second report is due to be published on May 27

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