Leading Article: To some, Mr Blunkett, it may now seem an exclusion zone

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Applications to universities for entry in 1998 look as if they are down 10 per cent on this year. It is hardly a dramatic fall, but the new numbers are striking because we have become used to the idea of higher education as a growth industry. And that is what it should be. Thanks - let us not forget - to Tory-engineered expansion, mass higher education is with us. University growth, even in the low-cost version provided by the former polytechnics, is a potent sign that society is improving and individuals are bettering themselves. The objective case for studying beyond 18 remains as strong as ever. A university degree does not just earn its holder more money; acquiring one brings with it a liberal, more tolerant outlook on life. Evidence of backsliding is thus disturbing and unwelcome.

If we give David Blunkett the benefit of the doubt, the obvious reasons for the drop - the introduction of tuition fees and the abolition of grants - look less than convincing. Students from poor backgrounds are exempt from paying the tuition fee being introduced next autumn; many others will not have to pay the stipulated pounds 1,000 contribution. Grants for living expenses were on their way out under Tory plans; all Labour has done is accelerate the process, while providing universal access to low-interest loans. Students will enter employment with a debt burden, true, but it will be only a fraction of the mortgage debt with which young people happily saddle themselves. The debt will moreover be repayable on generous terms, and apply only to those actually earning.

All in all, Mr Blunkett might say, this reform represents a long overdue rebalancing of the interests of state, society and individuals in the benefits of higher education. And, by the way, parents do well out of the new deal, because they are no longer expected to make a contribution to their offspring's living expenses.

But Mr Blunkett has a problem in that 17- and 18-year-olds are not giving him the benefit of the doubt. The Government, for all its vaunted ability to spin golden messages favourable to its cause, seems to have lost its touch in higher education. For political reasons, it was decided in the summer to get the political pain over quickly and announce, hard on the heels of the Dearing report, that the dispensation would apply at once to those intending to enter university in 1998, who would be applying this autumn. There was nothing wrong with moving with speed, providing the Government was prepared to make the effort to keep parents, professors, teachers and pupils/students well-informed.

But the handling was cack-handed then, and continues to be so now. The first indication of incompetence was that the department forgot about students who would be deferring their applications in order to spend a "gap year" between school and university. The second was that Baroness Blackstone tried to pretend it didn't matter. Then the Government allowed the National Union of Students to start winning the propaganda war, spreading alarm among prospective students. Ministers have been too defensive, unable to reach out, assuage fears and explain.

For students to make a rational calculation that their best interests lie in getting a job rather than undertaking further study is one thing - a tempting decision in those areas where unemployment continues to fall, temporarily at least. It is another for potential students to shy away from an enriching experience on the basis of unwarranted fears. But what if the fall in enrolments shows that students on the margins, notably those from ethnic-minority homes and working-class young women, do genuinely believe the changed arrangements for grants tips the balance for them? Mr Blunkett has some explaining to do if the abolition of grants in 1999 is acting as a disincentive, especially since that was predicted in Sir Ron Dearing's report. It remains anomalous that tuition fees are means- tested while rules for maintenance loans apply uniformly to students from rich and poor homes.

It is, of course, still only December. Some would-be students are holding their fire. Some universities are going to be hit hard by the applications shortfall - their finances depend heavily on student numbers - and will be scrabbling to attract enrolments. The enrolments season, supposed to end in a fortnight, will last until Easter at least. It is thus too soon to pronounce definitively on the implications of the numbers. But is not too soon for Mr Blunkett and his colleagues to give serious thought to the subject of social exclusion, and to find and publicise ways in which, sticking with the principles of their reform, access to higher education for students from less well-off homes might be maintained. We need not only to improve our ability to pay for higher education, but also to continue increasing the numbers taking part. Both are possible, but only if the Government carries students enthusiastically along, however rich or poor their parents.

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