Leading article: Poorer students must not be put off by debt

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The Independent Online

One of the reasons for the continued reluctance of working-class students to go to university is likely to be the fear of incurring large debts. The very young people the Government most wants to encourage into higher education, it seems, are the very people most worried about the debts they would incur from having to pay tuition fees of up to £3,000 a year from September 2006. Financial assistance will be available to students from poorer homes, including grants of £2,700 per year and university bursaries that would cover the rest of the cost. But so far, ministers have done nothing like enough to promote these packages. We are assured by the Department of Education that a campaign is on the way to remedy this. It cannot come a moment too soon.

The other worry identified by the report is the performance of boys. Only 30 per cent of them are staying on in the sixth form to take A-levels, compared with 38 per cent of girls. Ministers say the introduction of a national scheme of education maintenance allowances for the first time last year - worth up to £30 a week to young people from the poorest homes -is helping to address the problem.

But this trend also highlights the folly of the Government's decision to ditch the reforms suggested this year by the former chief schools inspector Sir Mike Tomlinson. His report, which called for the A-level system to be replaced by an overarching diploma covering academic and vocational qualifications, would have offered a radically different and relevant curriculum to young people. This could have helped stem the underperformance of boys and their disproportionate drop-out rate.

We have never regarded the 50 per cent university target as a panacea. On its own it was never going to be a solution to the shortcomings of the higher education system. And we will not clamour for it to be met at all costs. It was, at best, a back-of-an-envelope calculation. But it did signal the direction in which the Government wanted to travel. To that extent it was useful. And it would still be disappointing if - as today's report suggests - the participation figure stagnates at its present level of 43 per cent. Everything must be done to encourage participation to creep nearer to the original target.