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The Independent Online
1998 has begun on an uneasy note for higher education. Overall applications for college and university places this year are down by 8 per cent - and for some institutions (mainly from the "wrong side" of the old binary tracks) by as much as 20 per cent. But no one seems to know whether to take this fall seriously.

The proximate cause, of course, is the Government's decision to charge students up to pounds 1,000 for tuition, thus breaching the principle that higher education should be free to (full-time undergraduate) students and paid for out of general taxation. Those who have always opposed fees (including me) see a direct link between charging for tuition and the decline in applications. It is tempting to say "we told you so - but no one was prepared to listen".

But, to be fair for a moment, there are three interpretations of the dearth of applicants. The first, to which ministers hopefully cling, is that it is merely a blip. Part of the reason is that, despite the Government's tardy and confusing concession on the "gap" year, some potential 1998 entrants were not prepared to take the risk. They took up their places last autumn in a rush to be the last to benefit from "free" higher education. So any shortfall this year will simply balance out last year's over-recruitment.

The general uncertainty still swirling around the fees decision may also have discouraged potential applicants - more perhaps than the pounds 1,000 charge itself. Certainly it may have discouraged them from applying as early as usual. There is some evidence to support this view. The gap between last year's and this year's applications totals narrowed as UCAS's December deadline approached. What initially appeared to be a frightening collapse in demand has turned out to a - just about - manageable decline. As late applications pile up the gap may narrow still further, or even disappear entirely.

The second, slightly more gloomy, interpretation is that it may take two or three years before demand for higher education recovers to its pre-fees level - but recover it will. Two main arguments support this interpretation.

First, the confusion inhibiting applicants cannot be dispelled in a single year. It will take time for potential students to work out how much their higher education will cost (not just a matter of the proportion of the pounds 1,000 fee for which they will be liable, but the total financial burden they will have to bear) and also for institutions to devise payment and advice systems that take the pain out of fees.

Second, all change is resisted at first. But usually it is accepted in the end. Remember the first hostile reaction to ITV, prescription charges, membership of the European Union, rail privatisation. It will be the same with tuition fees. In a few years no one will remember what all the fuss was about. Demand for higher education will bounce back.

But there is a third more troubling interpretation - that student demand may take much longer to recover and, when it does, it will be on a socially inequitable basis. The main argument for the first conclusion is that British higher education is still awkwardly poised between being an elite and an open system.

A decade or so ago, when higher education enrolled fewer than one-in- seven, charging would not have been a problem. Universities recruited their students predominantly from among the socially privileged and even working-class students could look forward to successful graduate careers. A decade hence, when higher education had become a truly open system, it would be so firmly woven into the fabric of everyday expectations that most people would not be able to forgo the opportunity - whatever the cost.

But today? Higher education is now sufficiently open that graduates can no longer expect to become members of a professional elite. Rates-of-return, for individuals if not in aggregate, are declining. But it is still sufficiently closed (or, more fairly, access to its elite parts is still largely determined by class and race, gender and geography) that higher education is not yet the common possession of all the people. Outside the spreading middle class it is not yet a compulsory rite of passage.

The main argument for the second conclusion is that fees are a small but significant element in something much bigger, the denial of social democracy. We no longer believe in public education - because we no longer properly understand it. The conviction that all education, certainly the best, is inescapably "public" (in its values if not its entire funding) has been lost. Without it the case for preserving "free" higher education is difficult to make.

Yet, if it is not made and made again, the constitution of British higher education may come apart. Put simply, the present system, which for all its social imperfections has done so much to civilise and modernise Britain, would probably not exist at all if it had not been "free". Nor, of course, would Britain be so healthy or wealthy if the National Health Service and the welfare state (in its widest sense) had never been invented. Maybe the toughest of "tough choices" is to remain true to the conviction that our democracy can never be complete until it embraces the "social".

The writer is Vice-Chancellor of Kingston University.