Tony Blair's half a million extra college students: sleight of hand or a magic formula?

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The Independent Online
When Tony Blair pulled his rabbit out of the hat last week and announced another half a million students would go to college by 2002, the education world was gobsmacked.

It was clear civil servants knew nothing about the new target. No information was forthcoming about how or when the new policy was formulated. Nobody knew how it would be implemented - for example, how many of the new students would be headed for universities and how many for further education - or where the money would come from. Indeed, many wondered whether it was for real or whether it was a conjuring trick. Certainly, it looked like policy making on the hoof. Lucy Hodges disentangles the likely truth from the conference hype

The Prime Minister's rabbit was almost a throwaway statement in his breathless catalogue of achievements and aspirations at the Labour Party conference in Brighton. It came after the bit about the hard choice - tuition fees - and before the verbless sentence "Our education system - a beacon to the world." Mr Blair said: "We will lift the cap on student numbers and set a target for an extra 500,000 people into higher and further education by 2002."

Questions to the Department for Education and Employment have elicited little more than the apologetic, "I'm sorry we have no detail at the moment," and, "We will be making plans and advising ministers on the way forward to achieve the target." And a spokesman for Education Secretary David Blunkett said details would be fleshed out in the White Paper on lifelong learning to be published next month.

It looks as though the Prime Minister stole the headline message from that White Paper and inserted it into his speech. The White Paper - implementing much in the report from Baroness Kennedy and some of the Dearing recommendations - will now, we know, have some substance. It is expected to be announced with much fanfare, launching a government campaign, "Learning into the new millennium", and showing that ministers are really serious about getting more people from under-represented social groups Four and Five into further and higher education.

Universities and colleges should have been dancing in the streets at such an announcement, but they weren't. Partly because of an instinctive cynicism about politicians' motives and a wariness borne of years of being squeezed financially, they weren't sure whether to believe their eyes and ears.

David Triesman, general secretary of the Association of University Teachers, said: "I am pleasantly surprised by their ambition. I am tremendously in favour of increasing all levels of participation in education - at all ages. We need it as an economy and it would do us a lot of good as a society. But it is not at all clear that any additional money will arrive at all."

Only last month, higher education minister Baroness Blackstone had replied hesitantly to a question about lifting the cap on student numbers before improving quality and infrastructure deficiencies. Mr Blunkett had gone a little further. He spoke of raising the proportion of 18 to 21-year- old entering higher education over the next five years - from the current 32 per cent to 35 per cent. Both ministers chose their words and their figures carefully.

How come that within days the Prime Minister was talking of a 10 per cent increase on the five million people now in higher and further education? The only interpretation possible is that he needed some warm words quickly to spike a potential uprising over government plans to charge for tuition. David Milliband, acting head of the Downing Street policy unit and an education specialist, was happy to oblige. One hopes that Mr Blunkett was given advance warning. Certainly, few others in the education world were. It has left everyone scrabbling around trying to explain his words.

Whatever the motives - and the Prime Minister can be forgiven some innocent politicking - all experts agree now that some kind of expansion will take place. That is a cause for celebration. They also think the extra places will be heavily skewed towards further education, some of them under the umbrella of the University for Industry (another subject to be covered in the White Paper) because it is cheaper and because that's what the country needs. In his report, Sir Ron Dearing called on the Government to adopt a long-term strategic aim of responding to increased demand for higher education, much of which he expected to be at sub-degree level.

He added: "To this end, the cap on full-time undergraduate places should be lifted over the next two to three years and the cap on full-time sub- degree places should be lifted immediately."

The fact that the Prime Minister mentioned further education at all is being taken as a positive sign by the college sector. David Melville, chief executive of the further education funding council, says: "We welcome the Prime Minister adding his commitment to that of the Secretary of State to turn attention to the expansion of further education. This announcement gives a welcome boost to the Kennedy report but it can't be done without additional money. My reading of the speech is that there is a commitment there to fund this expansion."

Money is at the heart of the scepticism with which the announcement was greeted. As if he almost didn't believe it, Roger Ward, chief executive of the Association of Colleges, says: "We want the places now. We are ready for them, but we need extra funds."

Given the Government's commitment to abide by the public spending constraints imposed by the previous Conservative regime, where will the extra cash come from? According to John Brennan, director of FE development at the Association of Colleges, another pounds 1bn will be needed. He reckons that 100,000 of the extra places could go to the universities (on the assumption that the participation rate would rise by 3 per cent, as Mr Blunkett said) and the remaining 400,000 to further education.

Naturally enough, the Education Secretary's spokesman denied there was any cause for scepticism. "There was cynicism about whether there was going to be money around for the universities," he said, pointing to the pounds 165m which Mr Blunkett conjured up for higher education. "We proved the cynics wrong. We will prove them wrong about further education before the year is out."

All of which sounds like good news. But the reference to the extra money for higher education next year worries those who noticed the provenance of that pounds 165m. It is not new money for higher education but simply an accounting fiddle. The cash has been found by paying out loans to students in three termly installments instead of as a lump sum in the autumn. Doing it that way, the DfEE can shunt the third tranche into the following financial year. Bingo! An extra pounds 165m is found.

In his speech, Mr Blair referred to that sum. By the end of this parliament in five years' time money saved through reform of student funding (by that he meant tuition fees) would be put back into "frontline provision in universities and further education", he said. But, as those who have been following higher education funding debates know only too well, it is pie in the sky to think much extra money will be freed up because of the Treasury insistence on classifying all money lent to students as adding to the public sector borrowing requirement.

One Labour Party education expert said: "There's not a chance in hell of extra money coming in through reform unless loans are reclassified. And as Labour's new loans scheme will be more generous than the Tory one, the take-up will be higher, which will put even more pressure on higher education funding."

But Professor Alan Smithers of Brunel University points out that the cost of educating more adults on short courses, which can be little more than two weeks, is low. Many of the 400,000 students may fall into that category. Two million students on short courses in further education already pay for themselves, so the Government could produce a lot of bodies to fill its target without shelling out too much taxpayers' money.

Any extra funding is expected to be tied to access, thereby ensuring that it is being spent on people who would not otherwise opt for further education. It is also likely to be employment related, geared not to academic courses but to raising skill levels which are needed for the workplace. Funding may also be linked to a requirement that further education colleges increase their class sizes.

Former chief inspector of the FEFC Terry Melia pointed out in his final report that class sizes observed during inspection in further education averaged around 10 people (though the number on roll was more). Word is out that the forthcoming report of the new chief inspector for further education will show class sizes in further education have not increased and may even have decreased. That may give the Government a golden opportunity to squeeze extra students into the system at very little cost. Watch this space

extract from the prime minister's speech

"Universities in Britain had their funding cut by 40 per cent per student under the Tories.

The Tories put a cap on student numbers. Only 30 per cent of youngsters in Britain go to university. Fewer not just than France or the USA, but fewer than South Korea. The hard choice: stay as we are and decline. Or modernise and win.

Under our proposals, no parent will have to pay more. Low income families will be entirely exempt from tuition fees. All students will repay only as they can afford to.

And if we reform, I am going to pledge to you, that by the end of this parliament, we will put resources saved through reform into frontline provision in universities and further education; and the first pounds 165m is already in next year's budgets.

We will lift the cap on student numbers and set a target for an extra 500,000 people into higher and further education by 2002. Our education system - a beacon to the world."