A nettle grasped, for all our children

Education Secretary David Blunkett believes tuition fees will increase access to colleges
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I Have been involved in politics for more than 25 years. In that time, nobody has ever accused me of being afraid to grasp a nettle just because it is controversial. If there has been a problem to be resolved, I have always sought to face it head-on.

It is the job of a politician to lead and, whether in Westminster or Sheffield politics, I have always sought to do so. That is why, when people ask me whether it is really necessary to take difficult decisions about university funding, I give them a straightforward answer. Yes, it is. We are in government and if we don't face up to a crisis, nobody else will. We need to lay the foundations for future economic prosperity and social cohesion by grasping nettles now.

That is why I find the views expressed by Ros Wynne-Jones and the Independent on Sunday leading article last week so out of touch with reality. We have had to plan for the long-term and deal with problems that have built up through years of Tory neglect.

The numbers of young people going on to university have increased nearly five-fold over the last 30 years. The nature of those studying has changed considerably - nearly half are mature students and a third are part-timers. Yet funding per student fell by a quarter in real terms since 1989 under the Tories. Without significant extra funding, universities and colleges would face rapid and terminal decline, making increased access impossible.

All parties supported the establishment of the Dearing committee. The Liberal Democrats argued in opposition for tuition fees. The Tories started to phase out maintenance grants. So their opposition lacks credibility now.

Our solution builds both on Sir Ron Dearing's proposals for tuition fees and our own manifesto commitment to maintenance reform. Our manifesto said clearly that graduates should repay the cost of maintenance. We also made it clear we were awaiting Dearing's recommendations. When these proposed tuition fees of pounds l,000 for every student, we sought to ensure the fairest way of introducing them, while maintaining our view that top-up tuition fees were no part of the solution.

Graduates earn more than non-graduates - as much as pounds 4,000 for every pounds 20,000 earned by a non-graduate. So why should they not make a contribution, just as part-timers, postgraduates and further education students do?

The new Labour government's proposals are designed to maximise the money available for universities and colleges over the next 20 or 30 years.

But there will be a significant immediate gain, too. We have announced pounds 165m extra for students and universities in 1998-99 - money which was not in the Tories' plans. We have also announced an extra pounds 83m for further education, plus the chance to bid for a minimum of pounds 100m from the New Deal for the unemployed. This will help them to improve standards, make a start on increasing the numbers going into further and higher education after a Tory freeze and double access funds. It will ensure that the income raised from fees is used directly to support life-long learning.

Equity has been central to our thinking. Under the present system, 80 per cent of young people from the professional social group go on to university while just 17 per cent or under are from low-income backgrounds.

But there is no evidence that loans deter access. In fact, even since the introduction of the Tories' less equitable loans scheme in 1991, there has been a greater increase in participation among those from lower-income backgrounds than among those from higher-income families. I understand the concerns that some people have on the access issue, but I believe that our plans and funding will improve access considerably in the years ahead for three reasons.

First, around a third of all students will not have to pay any fees - those from the poorest backgrounds. A further 30 per cent will pay only part of the fees. Those who pay fees will have access to an additional maintenance loan. To argue, therefore, as your leading article did last week, that tuition fees are a deterrent to students from less well-off families is simply wrong - they will not have to pay them.

Second, our new scheme will involve no higher up-front contribution from any student or family. Most parents are already expected to make a clearly defined contribution to maintenance - the amount required will remain the same as under the present system. Students will have the same amount to live on as under the present system - with an additional new pounds 250 hardship loan for those who need it.

Third, the current scheme forces repayments to be made on a mortgage- style system over a period of five to seven years. Instead, we will introduce income contingency for repayments over a much longer period. The unemployed and low earners do not have to repay until they start earning more than pounds 10,000 a year. At pounds 17,000 a year, a graduate would repay just pounds l2 a week compared with up to pounds 30 a week under the current scheme. The loans will continue to attract a rate of interest equivalent only to inflation.

The Teaching and Higher Education Bill, which received its first reading last week, introduced a number of important safeguards to our proposals and reforms.

The Inland Revenue will be responsible for collecting repayments, allowing us to reduce considerably the level of default. We have made clear that top-up tuition fees play no part in our proposals and I will have a reserve power to control fee levels in the interests of equity. And we will ensure that the level of fees cannot change in real terms by more than the rate of inflation without the express agreement of both Houses of Parliament.

Our policy is fair and right. It is designed to address the real challenges that we face in the future. That is what responsible government is about and I am confident that most parents and students will understand why change was necessary - and that we made those changes equitably for both students and graduates.

The Government's hotline number for those seeking more information is 0800 731 9133.