End the madness of a tea party where there's always jam tomorrow

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The Independent Online

"'Have some wine,' the March Hare said in an encouraging tone. Alice looked all round the table, but there was nothing on it but tea. 'I don't see any wine,' she remarked. 'There isn't any,' said the March Hare."

"'Have some wine,' the March Hare said in an encouraging tone. Alice looked all round the table, but there was nothing on it but tea. 'I don't see any wine,' she remarked. 'There isn't any,' said the March Hare."

The Open University is now a prominent guest at the higher education tea party. When the Government first summoned participants to what became the major event of the political season, it was not invited. The university was ignored in the White Paper and excluded from the subsequent Bill.

As the party progressed, however, the OU began to be noticed. Considerable attention was paid to it during the closing passages of the debate on the Higher Education Bill in the House of Commons and in the debate in the Lords it is now receiving widespread support. "This party," said Baroness Ashton of Upholland, the Red Queen of Education, "is rightly proud of the Open University because it is a great institution." (Hansard, 13 May).

But there is nothing on the table. In order to enable the full-time sector to triple its fees, the Government has been forced to give it a billion pounds in the form of grants and deferred payments. The part-time sector sits empty-handed. All it has is the cold tea of fee supports for poorer students agreed before the top-up debate began and based on the old full-time rate of £1,125. Lewis Carroll would relish the spectacle.

The university whose sole purpose is to bring higher education to those traditionally neglected by the conventional universities is ignored by a Government committed since 1997 to widening participation. The university with 50 per cent of its students earning less than £25,000 is urged to exercise its freedom to increase fees at will, but specifically excluded from the devices introduced to prevent escalating fees driving students out of higher education.

The university which spends more on market research than the rest of the sector put together is accused of not taking market forces seriously.

The university which constitutes the main safety net for the Government's high-wire act of promoting participation by tripling costs is denied any assistance to strengthen the fraying cords of its infrastructure.

In new correspondence with The Open University's Vice-Chancellor, the Minister of Higher Education Alan Johnson has yet again recognised the concerns of the university and assured us that our future is secure under this government. But no significant change is to be made to the Bill in the Lords and nothing is proffered by way of an alternative solution. A HEFCE review is promised, but no funding is available to support its outcome.

In Wonderland, however, complaint itself is illogical.

"'Take some more tea,' the March Hare said to Alice, very earnestly. 'I've had nothing yet,' Alice replied in an offended tone, 'so I can't take more.'

'You mean you can't take less,' said the Hatter. 'It's very easy to take more than nothing.'"

David Vincent is The Open University's Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Strategy, Planning and External Affairs

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