Leading article: A high degree of privilege

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Graduate baby-boomers should have the humility to pause before they fall over themselves to welcome the Government's decision last week to charge university tuition fees and abolish the maintenance grant. The university student of the 1960s was an almost indecently privileged creature. Having been reared on free orange juice, topped up with school milk, he or she went on to an amply funded university education in which no bright student with the right A-levels ever doubted the right to a seductively non-vocational course, preferably in a pleasant town or campus as far away as possible from inquisitive parents. And having completed the course, even with an indifferent degree (after all work wasn't everything; you were there to have a good time as well) the graduate could expect to walk, if not into the job of his or her choice, at least into one which reflected the elite status conferred with the degree. From Sussex to Oxford, from the University of East Anglia to Bristol, the message to the graduate generation was that they were special; in particular, special enough to have three of the best years of their lives paid for by a nation of taxpayers whose children would not, for the most part, enjoy the same privileges.

The cold but inescapable message at the heart of Sir Ron Dearing's report Higher Education in the Learning Society and in the Government's response to it, is that life is no longer like that. For one thing, the minority is no longer as small as it was; something like 30 per cent compared with just five per cent 30 years ago. At the same time, the amount of public money spent per student has declined steadily by 40 per cent and in the process threatened standards, of research, of scholarship, and above all of what Dearing has recognised to be the least reliable element of university life, teaching itself. Something had to give; which is why, with rebellious Vice Chancellors threatening to charge their own fees, the previous government set up the Dearing Committee in the first place. This Government's response is politically brave precisely because no one can pretend it is painless: all students, except those from households with incomes of less than pounds 16,000 will now pay a contribution to tuition fees - around pounds 1,000 a year for those from families earning from pounds 34,000. Loans will be available for this and for the (already seriously eroded) maintenance grants which will be abolished. Students without ongoing financial support from parents will enter working life saddled with a debt of pounds 10,000 or more.

Already, only around 10 per cent of unskilled workers' children go to university compared with 80 per cent of those from professional homes. The principal fear must be that a daunting debt of that order will deter students from the poorest homes. There are a number of persuasive arguments against that, though, most notably that repayment will depend on the earnings of the graduate once in work. International experience suggests that a loan-financed system does not deter poorer students: merely having a degree increases earning power on average by around 20 per cent. The Government has yet to announce at what level of income repayment will start but it is likely to be over double the pounds 5,000 a year recommended by Dearing. And the period for repayment will be almost four times as long (up to 20 years) as for current student loans.

Tony Blair speaks of his aspiration to spread opportunity. If it means anything, then it is vital that more, not fewer, students from lower income groups enter higher education. It is on this, rather than the hoped for improvement in university standards that the policy will, rightly or wrongly, be judged. Dearing has proposed a review after five years. These are five years in which the Government must test the impact of the proposals on the class distribution of those in higher education.

Meanwhile, the Government deserves credit for rising to the challenge of the university funding crisis. The central effect, which should not be overlooked, is to make the prosperous pay at last towards the cost of tuition. David Blunkett's announcement is about much more than higher education funding, though: it is an important opening stage in the Government's programme to reform the welfare state. If the future depends on imposing new responsibilities on individuals, then the first place to start is to deprive higher income groups of expensive state handouts they do not need.