Seizing the moment on grants

10th October 1997 at 01:00
At least on the surface Harold Macmillan was the most relaxed of modern Prime Ministers. Asked about the greatest challenges of the job, he replied: "Events, dear boy, events." The unpredictable is the biggest threat to the dominant position of the current Government. That explains Brian Wilson's hurried departure from Labour's conference and his decision to take personal charge of the student grants crisis.

If a minister is seen to be busying himself, he can hand off criticism. The Education Minister is not to blame for the problems faced by students whose grant applications have not been processed and who therefore run into financial problems while their university receives no money on their behalf. The new computer at the Students Awards Agency started playing up in April (Mr Wilson forebore from saying "I blame the last government"). The agency should have sorted out the problem or at least forewarned student officers and the Government that there was trouble ahead.

It seems to have done neither, which is the source of Mr Wilson's anger. He could not have prevented the problem, nor could he probably have done anything to ward off its obvious consequences. But notwithstanding, the muddle does the Government no good.

Ministers know the depth of concern about student tuition fees and the final withdrawal of maintenance grant. Mr Wilson last week had to endure a difficult inquisition on television. Any gesture signalling good intent - especially if it costs nothing - is a bonus. So students have been told that the rectors of ancient universities can continue to chair court meetings, despite the opposition of principals. Those with deferred entry can take up their places next autumn without incurring fees. So can students who have embarked on the HND route to a degree course.

The higher education constituency swung overwhelmingly to Labour in May. In terms of numbers and influence its support must not be sacrificed. Hence the anxiety about the reassertion of Treasury controls on university finances, which have threatened to get out of control as demand for student places continues . Hence, too, the determination to prevent a grass-roots rebellion at the Labour conference. Mild embarrassment at the affront to democracy (the principal motion criticising the Government was withdrawn) had to be set against the Government's determination to push through its solution to the funding problem.

The Conservatives lost the student vote in the mid-eighties when Sir Keith Joseph proposed charging them. It lost the academics' support in successive freezes on university funding. Resentment spread out and affected other groups. Mr Wilson and his colleagues south of the border know the electoral importance of higher education. They also know the burden of universities on the taxpayer. But some affronts to students are deemed unnecessary and are guaranteed to arouse ministerial anger.

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