Merit and Not Money Must Determine Who Goes into Higher Education; EXCLUSIVE: AND HERE'S WHAT THE MINISTER SAYS

The Mirror (London, England), December 5, 2002 | Go to article overview

Merit and Not Money Must Determine Who Goes into Higher Education; EXCLUSIVE: AND HERE'S WHAT THE MINISTER SAYS


Byline: DOROTHY LEPKOWSKA Education Correspondent

MARGARET Hodge is presiding over "the most difficult policy issue" she's ever had to deal with.

And it's having a real impact in the unlikeliest places. "My husband is getting fed up with pillow talk about student finance and top-up fees," she reveals.

Next month, the minister for higher education and lifelong learning - dubbed by some the Minister for HELL - will reveal the government's plans for university funding and student finance.

Top-up fees have emerged as the universities' favoured option for clawing in the pounds 10billion needed to sustain the system.

The Cabinet is split on the issue, the government faces a backbench revolt and Mrs Hodge is feeling the heat. "Of course, I'm worried," she admits. "It will be a difficult balance between getting student contributions right and widening access.

"The passion that drives me in this job is trying to tackle the inequality of opportunity that exists in who goes to university."

The trick is to plug the funding shortfall while making sure youngsters aren't put off going for fear of incurring huge debts.

Two weeks ago, Mrs Hodge sparked anger by saying that young people had to realise there was "no such thing as a free lunch".

She then asked why "the dustman should pay for the education of the doctor" and also suggested that under-graduates pay up to pounds 5,000 in tuition fees, compared with the State-subsidised pounds 1,100 they pay now.

"I thought that speech was very honest," she says. "Did it really upset people? I'm just trying to give an honest picture of the tensions we're facing.

"But I want to say this loud and clear - any system we put in place will ensure that working-class kids are not deterred from aiming higher.

"Merit and not money must determine whether young people go into higher education. We've ruled out general taxation, because we have a commitment that we will not put that up."

What about the manifesto promise that top-up fees wouldn't be introduced in this parliament?

"Things that appear appropriate at any one point in time may change later. We have made a manifesto promise and we'll stick to it."

The indications are, then, that top-up fees could be introduced after the next election.

Mrs Hodge admits that she has been one of the fortunate ones. "Yes, I was able to go to university relatively easily and be supported by my family.

"But, 40 years on, times have changed. We have massively increased the likelihood of going to university if you are working-class, so it is no longer a middle-class right and working-class privilege. …

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