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

Related Topics
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.

React Now

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

Sauce Recruitment: Retail Planning Manager - Home Entertainment UK

salary equal to £40K pro-rata: Sauce Recruitment: Are you available to start a...

Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer - London - up to £40,000

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Creative Front-End Developer - Claph...

Recruitment Genius: Product Quality Assurance Technologist - Hardline & Electric

£18000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The role in this successful eco...

Ashdown Group: QA Tester - London - £30,000

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: QA Tester - London - £30,000 QA Tes...

Day In a Page

Read Next

CPAC 2015: What I learnt from the US — and what the US could learn from Ukip

Nigel Farage

If I were Prime Minister: I would create a government that actually reflects its people

Kaliya Franklin
HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

Time to play God

Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

MacGyver returns, but with a difference

Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

Tunnel renaissance

Why cities are hiding roads underground
'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

Boys to men

The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

Crufts 2015

Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
10 best projectors

How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

Monaco: the making of Wenger

Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

Homage or plagiarism?

'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower