At last some Dearing-do

The Government is to be congratulated for grasping the nettle of university tuition fees
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Those of us who are responsible for running higher education in Britain are becoming accustomed to making rapid decisions that will fundamentally affect the future of our individual institutions, and of the sector as a whole. The speedy judgements necessary in the aftermath of the four-yearly research assessment exercises have, with hindsight, proved to be good training for our response to "the big one", which finally arrived in the shape of the Dearing report.

The most pleasing aspect of the report, which united everyone who was called upon to make an immediate comment, was that all those concerned had long recognised the need for an additional income stream for universities. Four years ago I wrote an article for The Independent arguing the need for tuition fees. Jeffrey Rooker, then shadow minister for education, published a policy paper which said the same thing. It has taken a long time for the proposed change to be accepted. I applaud the courage and honesty of ministers today who are confronting, with a commendable directness, something that obviously causes them difficulties.

But as for what one could call the major Dearing proposals, and the Government's approach to them, there is not a perfect unity of response.

We at Nottingham are concerned that some potential students from low- income families will be deterred from applying to university by the size of the debt they would incur during their courses. We also feel that students are more likely to take jobs during term time, to the detriment of their studies. Means testing for fees and assistance carries the danger that it will be massively bureaucratic.

In the past, a careers teacher faced with young men and women from working- class homes who were suspicious and apprehensive of higher education, a middle-class world far removed from the reality of their lives to date, could respond that maintenance grants and fees paid by the local education authorities would make three or four years at university possible, if not easy. The Dearing option of retaining the maintenance grant would have kept that line of reasoning open. What is that same teacher going to tell those young people, in the light of the Government's response?

Nottingham's response will be to ensure that enough scholarships and bursaries are available to make certain that academic excellence remains the primary qualification. If a young person is academically qualified to come to Nottingham, we must make sure he or she is able to take up a place. It would be deplorable, if such young people were to be deterred from applying.

My colleagues and I are concerned, too, about the implications of the size of the debt for students wishing to continue with postgraduate study. There will be substantial pressure on them to seek employment to start paying back the debt. This will affect research universities such as Nottingham.

Those considering the Dearing report had not only to consider its alternative proposals, but also to take on board the fact that the immediate response of the Government, while accepting the funding problem, differed strongly in its proposals on how to move forward to implementation.

If the Government is set on taking its own preferred route, it must act urgently to fill in the practical details about how the new system will operate, so that we can get on with the task of delivering the expanded higher education sector that we all agree is necessary.

Obviously, I am pleased that the Government has recognised the need for an additional income stream. I welcome the Dearing recommendation that, in the short term, the efficiency gain should be cut to 1 per cent. The recognition that research should be fully funded is timely. Less than a month before the publication of the Dearing report an independent report on research universities commissioned by the Committee of Vice- Chancellors and Principals revealed a funding gap of pounds 440m faced by researchers in England. The report showed that the physical and staffing infrastructure of universities was increasingly unable to keep up with the volume of research undertaken.

In addition, I accept the principle that, in a greatly expanded system of higher education, the individual who benefits should expect to make a greater contribution when they are in a position to pay - hence my support for the concept of an income-contingent loan.

But the government statement lacks practical details about how the system will operate, and poses several pertinent questions.

We need urgent clarification of who will be affected by the October 1998 implementation and the phasing-in of the new system. Existing students will not be affected, but what about students who have already accepted deferred entry to 1998 in order to gain work experience (a notion which is supported by Dearing)?

Will the suggested pounds 1,000 fee completely replace the current fee paid for most students by their local education authority?

What will be the mechanics of payment of the fee to universities, especially in respect of those students for whom it will be waived or reduced as the result of the proposal for means testing?

We need to know, and fast, whether or not the Government accepts the Dearing proposals for part-time students.

It is essential that the practical arrangements for the new system are efficient and cost-effective. There must be no duplication of tasks between the Department for Education and Employment, the Higher Education Funding Councils, the local education authorities, the universities themselves and the new Student Support Agency.

It is also essential that money provided centrally for student loans is treated differently in the government account from money for grants. The latter properly counts against the public sector borrowing requirement; the former should not, as the bulk of it will be repaid over time.

I began on a positive note, and will end in the same vein. Despite the urgent questions I have posed, there is much that is good in both the Dearing report and the Government's response. British universities have managed a major expansion over recent years, and there are new and growing opportunities for "non-traditional" students - mature students, women and people from ethnic minorities.

For many years it had been becoming increasingly evident that the funding gap was growing, and would become a major problem. At last we have agreement on the need for additional funding. The priority now - and the need is urgent - is to reconcile the detailed differences and grasp the opportunity to provide the expansion in higher education that the country so desperately needsn

Professor Sir Colin Campbell is vice-chancellor of the University of Nottingham.