Huffing and puffing won't help plumbing

3rd January 2003 at 00:00
It can take a long time to put an election manifesto together - and the preliminary skirmishes over Labour's next one are already well under way. We may ask why we've been arguing about university funding since the autumn, when the Government has promised not to change the system during this parliament.

The answer is that plans are being laid for the third term - and on this issue the Government is in turmoil. The universities - thanks to chronic underfunding which goes back 20 years - are starved of cash. Tony Blair, his advisers, and certain hard-nosed university principals such as the rector of Imperial College in London, are keen to raise fees, and to allow elite universities to charge more than others.

But it has dawned on Tony that this just might not play too well with middle-class voters with university-age children, who saw off Sir Keith Joseph's plans in the 1980s. So kites are being flown well ahead of the next election.

Blair was right to be cautious: a row has blown up which shows no sign of abating. It has already played its part in the resignation of a secretary of state for education. Policy announcements on top-up fees and graduate taxes blow this way and that with the political wind. Having been ignored for two decades, universities are in the news.

In the meantime, there has been much huffing and puffing, led by Chris Woodhead, about the Government's laudable aim of getting half the population into higher education - much of it on the bizarre grounds that sending "everyone" to university will make it even harder to find a decent plumber.

In truth, the current lack of skilled craftsmen has far more to do with the destruction of the apprenticeship system in the 1980s than it has with any higher education target. And 43 per cent of the age group already go into higher education.

A rise in the participation rate of roughly one percentage point per year until 2010 hardly seems excessive. Before Christmas, apparently rattled by all this nonsense, Charles Clarke seemed to be backing off from the 50 per cent target, saying that he would rather concentrate on getting more working-class students into university. It's probably a sensible shift, since the participation rate will almost certainly rise to 50 per cent anyway.

In the early 1990s, fuelled by middle-class ambition, it rose faster than the Government had expected - or intended. As it shot up to one in three of the age group, Kenneth Baker even considered artificially restricting numbers - until he was persuaded that voters might not like this. But Clarke still hasn't got the emphasis quite right. The reason that universities are under pressure to take more working-class applicants is not just to do with fairness, but with quality. Young people who have been pushed and hot-housed at expensive schools sometimes perform badly when the pressure is off and they are responsible for their own learning, and research shows that pupils from state schools get better degrees.

University applicants who have achieved their A-levels in difficult circumstances are demonstrating tenacity and commitment as well as ability. But the latest figures also show that universities with the most working-class intake have the highest drop-out rates. Much of this is due to financial hardship, and that's where Clarke needs to focus his efforts.

Struggling students are being betrayed by our lack of support for them. Scrapping maintenance grants in 1997 was a grave mistake. Bring them back.

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