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

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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.