Leading article: Today's student: well-qualified in harsh realities

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Britain's students, it seems, have grown up. Perhaps it is time for the rest of us to do so too, and rethink our attitudes to this important subgroup of our society.

As we report today, most students take their work seriously, are not deep in debt and no more likely than other young people to be out of their heads on legal and illegal drugs. Yet the legacy of 1968 lingers on. That was the year when "student" became loaded with meanings other than simply "one who studies". It was one of those dawns - false, as it turned out - when it was all right to be alive, but to be young was very all right. For many, it was a liberating experience, just to think for a short time that they were living through a revolutionary moment, and to experiment with alternative values and other hallucinogens.

But for most, it was never really like that, as Jack Straw and Tony Blair will testify. Mr Straw, a serious-minded student leader at the time, was never even offered a joint. Mr Blair himself was too young for 1968, but was a serious-minded student in the early 1970s. He even took singing in the Ugly Rumours seriously. And he didn't do drugs, either. A few of those who are asking the electorate for permission to run the country may have become social conservatives in between being sent down from Oxford and election to the Shadow Cabinet, but Messrs Straw and Blair have been moderate puritans all along.

Today's survey suggests that they are more typical of students, then and now, than popular stereotypes allow. However, there have been important changes in students' attitudes since 1968. It is not just the idealism that has taken on a more pragmatic character. The idea of learning for its own sake is fast disappearing, too. This started to happen quite suddenly in 1980, when students peered out of their ivory towers and noticed the long tail of the queue of unemployed people stretching towards them. Student life lost much of its romance when it was dominated by job plans and curriculum vitae-filling. But, as with most losses of innocence, this was a necessary evil. It might have been possible to preserve a purist notion of higher education as a good in itself when it was restricted to a tiny elite, but now that a third of over-18s are full-time students, economic factors must predominate. Taxpayers might be prepared to pay for a few of the very cleverest to study things of no economic value, or, like Ruth Lawrence and her Knot Theory, which might or might not prove valuable. But for the rest of us, economics is our foundation course.

It was economics that drove the expansion of higher education - young people were well aware that higher qualifications would decide not just how much they earned, but whether they got a job at all, and so led a demand-led system. But the expansion of higher education is one of many achievements that this Government seems unable to take credit for, because it does not really know whether it approves of students. It is hampered by out-of-date notions of who students are and what they are like. Even the Labour Party, for which education is the Holy Trinity, refuses to come to terms with the reality of student life today.

It is New Labour, specifically, which declared that the competitiveness of British workers in world markets depended above all on the quality of their education. It was Gordon Brown who repeated the mantra of Robert Reich, Bill Clinton's Labor Secretary, that you have to "learn more to earn more". So you would expect Labour to have important things to say about students and their academies. No such luck. Mr Brown has some bright ideas for a "University for Industry", and education or training would be one of the options for young people no longer allowed to claim dole. But on the question of funding for higher education, as on so many other subjects, New Labour has successfully closed down the debate.

After a few tentative hints at something more, Labour has settled into a familiar posture of agreeing with the Government on the principle of student loans, while criticising the precise mechanisms currently in place - as usual, minding its tongue on the basis of "not in front of the electorate". This is hardly the way to construct that "glad confident morning" feeling on 2 May.

One of the key findings of today's survey is that the average student expects to leave university with a debt of pounds 2,360. In relation to the lifetime advantage conferred by higher education, this is an astonishingly small amount of money, and it is high time this was recognised.

Of course students should pay for the cost of their own higher education, which ensures - as today's study confirms - that they are able to enter the labour market at around national average earnings. And of course the government should be able to devise a loan scheme that would not discourage students from poor families from going to university. It may be that a system of repayment through the tax system, linked to future earnings, would be the best way to do this, as well as taking into account the fact that many students may want to repay their debt to the community in some form of low-paid public service rather than cash.

The main objection to this reform is that learning is valuable to society as a whole irrespective of its economic utility - precisely the attitude that students themselves have, by and large, shed. This does not mean that they have lost their love of learning, or their idealism. These are qualities that ought to flourish among young people, and even older ones, whether or not they are in full-time education. They are not commodities that require public subsidy.