LEADING ARTICLE : Mind the gap - in policy, in lifelong learning

Share
Related Topics
Mind the gap. The Government has got itself into a stew over students who had planned to take a year off between receiving their A-level results this week and starting their university courses. Their numbers may be relatively small but their plight is real. Either ministers were badly advised or they, their special advisers and civil servants forgot that the announcement that tuition fees were payable from 1998 would scare thousands of students and give many of them an incentive to start their degrees this autumn - so putting additional strain on a "clearing" system already under severe pressure of numbers.

Making students and their relatives frantic is bad politics. Labour has now made the situation worse by an ill-considered hint that students doing certain ill-defined voluntary activities during their gap year would be exempt from tuition charges next year. That these were likely to be students who could most easily afford the new tuition fees and maintenance seems to have escaped Labour's class-attuned antennae. Matters need to be clarified. This will be a test of the mettle of shop-holding minister Tessa Blackstone.

There is, it's true, a silver lining in these clouds. Ministers and university tutors, employers, parents, let alone students themselves have been given an opportunity to think further about the boundary between school or college and higher education. In an ideal world the Government would tomorrow welcome the chance it has been given to reflect and promise to disclose new thoughts in the autumn White Paper on lifelong learning.

The point, surely, is that the very idea of a "gap" is meaningless in the context of lifelong learning. For several years now it has no longer been the case that all university students are callow 18-somethings who will leave at 21 and start jobs. The university undergraduate population is increasingly diverse. More than half of all undergraduates are classified as "mature". Indeed, one of the rationales for the inquiry led by Sir Ron Dearing was the inequity in the way the system treats full-time "young" undergraduates on the one hand and, on the other, the part-timers (paying their own way through thick and thin) and older full-timers who may or may not qualify for the treatment given their younger contemporaries.

Lifelong learning, as per Dearing, is about universities turning themselves into an educational resource throughout the post-18 span of life, their doors open to adults as well as teenagers, their first-degree students taking several years to complete a degree. (The introduction of credit- based learning along American lines is long overdue, though it will require a revolutionary change in behaviour in certain institutions.) After a first degree, students (the word becoming synonymous in the 21st century with employees) then return for top-up and short courses, replenishing the stock of intellectual capital.

In that perspective, many years are "gap" years. For some, perhaps many, 18-year-olds, a spell of employment after school or sixth form or further education college might be very useful. Many more would contemplate it, provided the financial help was the same for them as it would have been if they had gone straight on.

This is the great opportunity in the Dearing proposals as amended by David Blunkett: a system of loans for student maintenance makes such a vision entirely realisable. The Government's position on tuition fees is still, however, couched in terms of a university population of 18-year- olds. Mature students and those entering later would be penalised under any regime which assessed their means on the same basis as a teenager with no personal resources.

All that is for the future. What ought ministers to do now to prevent this summer storm growing into a political tempest? The first requirement is that Baroness Blackstone stop digging. That suggestion (official? kite- flying?) of exemption for students accepted on university courses starting in autumn 1998 who in the intervening period had done good works for the Prince's Trust or Voluntary Service Overseas was misbegotten. The last thing Third World countries need are skill-less young people playing the volunteer dilettante for three months. It is a moot point whether the life chances of inner-city youth would be enhanced by student types working for the Prince's Trust for a couple of months.

The catchment for these two bodies, and other worthy enterprises such as Community Service Volunteers, is necessarily from among students who can afford to do charity work. Are they really the most deserving objects of a Labour government's charity? And how complicated it would be to sort the volunteering goats from the others.

The thousands of students caught between a rock and a university place need the Government to come clean. There is a strong case in natural justice that the 19,000 or so students accepted for 1998 were accepted on existing financial terms and should be allowed to matriculate on 1997's conditions. This, it is true, does penalise those 1997 A-level candidates who decided to defer application but their case for exemption from the planned changes is much less strong.

Inadequate as Sir Ron Dearing's report was in some respects, it has pushed Labour into taking the right decision about higher education. To go straight ahead with the new fees regime was right, too. But ministers should have reckoned for what the Americans call "grandfathering" - the effects of a new scheme on those embroiled in existing arrangements. Fairness demands complete exemption for those with places who were planning a year out.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Business Analyst - Banking - London - £550 - £650

£550 - £650 per day: Orgtel: Business Analyst - Traded Credit Risk - Investmen...

Data Insight Manager - Marketing

£32000 - £35000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based o...

Data Centre Engineer - Linux, Redhat, Solaris, SAN, Puppet

£55000 per annum: Harrington Starr: A financial software vendor at the forefro...

.NET Developer

£600 per day: Harrington Starr: .NET Developer C#, WPF,BLL, MSMQ, SQL, GIT, SQ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
8,000 white-clawed crayfish are forecast to perish in the River Allen as a result of the plague  

Errors and Omissions: Plagued by an inappropriate use of a metaphor

Guy Keleny
The main entrance to Tilbury Docks in Essex  

Grant asylum to migrants who arrive close to death – but don’t be surprised if it inspires more tragedies

Mary Dejevsky
Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

Nick Clegg the movie

Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

Waxing lyrical

Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

Revealed (to the minute)

The precise time when impressionism was born
From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

Make the most of British tomatoes

The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
10 best men's skincare products

Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
Malky Mackay allegations: Malky Mackay, Iain Moody and another grim day for English football

Mackay, Moody and another grim day for English football

The latest shocking claims do nothing to dispel the image that some in the game on these shores exist in a time warp, laments Sam Wallace
La Liga analysis: Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Pete Jenson starts his preview of the Spanish season, which begins on Saturday, by explaining how Fifa’s transfer ban will affect the Catalans
Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape