Where are the spin doctors?;Opinion

6th March 1998 at 00:00
So the students have been taking to the streets again with their banners, just like in the old days; and this week we saw the Government defeated twice in the Lords - on university tuition fees and student grants.

Yet the idea that university students should contribute to the costs of their education is, ironically, one of the few potentially redistributive measures which the Government has tried to put in place. We know that free tuition has been a big subsidy to the middle classes, which gain more than anyone else from higher education. Working-class people have been paying for years to better themselves through further education. Few received grants - most had to pay their own fees.

The furore over tuition fees has been able to gain momentum because too little thought was put into presenting the policy back in July. As a result, its opponents have had a field day. "The end of free higher education" is a simple message everyone can understand. Powerful middle-class vested interests have been mobilised to protect their own - but have been able to couch their arguments in terms of the terrible effect the policy will have on the poor. It's a PR's dream.

David Blunkett's pleas - that means-testing would ensure that the poorest pay nothing in fees and that loans do not have to be repaid until a graduate is earning at least pound;10,000 a year - have been drowned out by the voices of the indignant.

Not all of these have been from opposition parties; the most prominent rebel this week was Lord Glenamara, better known to many as former Labour Education Secretary Ted Short. From a working-class family, he found himself crippled by debt after putting himself through university in the pre-Robbins expansion days. He was only rescued from financial insolvency by a six-year stint in the Army - and argued that today's working-class students deserve better.

Last September, Mr Blunkett, faced with rebellion from his own troops as well as the opposition, admitted that he had handled the policy badly, and pledged a publicity campaign to persuade young people that they could afford the fees. But six months later more people seem aware of the fees than of the range of waivers, and applications are down among mature students and trainee teachers.

Presentation has not been the only problem; there was a real policy mistake too. In an effort to please the Treasury, Mr Blunkett decided to replace the maintenance grant - which only the very poorest are eligible for anyway - with a loan.

Sir Ron Dearing had warned that the combined prospect of tuition fees and an end to grants would deter less well-off families from higher education. And government-funded research by the highly respected Policy Studies Institute shows that some potential students were particularly averse to the idea of debt. And who are they? Women... Asian students... the unemployed...the very groups identified by Mr Blunkett in last week's Green Paper as needing incentives to return to learn.

Among this plethora of conflicting messages, the Government needs to keep its nerve. Middle-class families can afford to pay pound;1,000 a year - in fact some pay 10 times this in school fees. Hard-up working-class students will not have to pay. New sources of money do need to be found for higher education, so that more can be spent on other parts of the system.

The arguments for charging may be economic but the battle is political. With its 177-seat majority, the Government should have no trouble in overturning the Tories' amendments when the Bill comes back to the Commons; but even when this skirmish is over, the war for the hearts and minds of the people will not have been won. Where are the spin doctors now that Mr Blunkett needs them?

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