Right calls for student vouchers

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The Independent Online
STUDENTS would be given vouchers to pay for university education under a scheme proposed in a confidential paper by government advisers.

Coupled with a privatised student loan system, the plans could open the way for some universities to charge students additional fees.

Some ministers, including the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Jonathan Aitken, are pressing for vouchers for nursery education. Vouchers are also being considered for 16 to19-year-olds.

Now a Conservative policy group is discussing a paper which says vouchers could be used to fund universities.

At present, universities charge £2,800 for medical courses, £1,600 for science courses and £750 for classroom-based courses, mainly arts and social sciences. These are normally paid on the student's behalf by his or her local council. The fees cover only part of the true cost of courses: the rest of the money comes from government grants to universities.

Under the scheme being considered by the Tories, students would be given a voucher, probably worth £750, to "spend" at the university of their choice, thus cutting out the local authorities. The higher cost of science and medicine courses would be met by increasing the government block grant.

The policy group has already backed a privatised student loan system which could be run by banks or pension funds. This would replace the present loan scheme which, though run by a private company, is financed from public funds.

Students could therefore borrow more and meet the cost of fees above the normal rate if some lite universities, such as Oxford, Cambridge and the London School of Economics, wanted to charge them.

Supporters of the voucher scheme say it would allow students' preferences to dictate how and where university expansion took place. Popular universities would be able to grow as fast as they wanted to, whereas in recent years the brakes have been put on by ministers.

The scheme could allow students to take a break or to go part-time, spending their vouchers as they needed them.

The Conservative Central Office higher education policy group is drawing up ideas for the party's general election manifesto, but is also feeding into a review by Tim Boswell, the higher education minister.

Its decision to consider the idea of vouchers is not surprising in the current climate. Even the National Union of Students looked at it in a recent review,but did not favour it.

Jim Murphy, the NUS president, said it failed completely to address the problem of students' maintenance costs, which were so high that they forced many to drop out of university.

"The priorities of any new funding system," he said, "must be to increase access to study, to alleviate student hardship, to create equitable funding for both full-time and part-time students and to enhance the quality of education. A voucher system backed up by top-up fees would fail on all these counts."

But Sir Graham Hills, former vice-chancellor of Strathclyde University and long an advocate of vouchers, said it would remove the hand of government from direct control over the university system, help expansion and widen access.

"Most people don't go to university - they don't even get a look-in," he said. "They come from poor schools and poor homes. The present system is socially unjust."

Voucher history, page 9