It is deeply pleasurable watching Lib Dems squirm as they get hammered on Higher Education funding. All those solemn pledges not to do what you end up doing has put paid to their squeaky clean image. Though the happiest viewer must be David Cameron. Once again Clegg & Co. get the flak rather than the Tories, whose policy it actually is. Whatever, looking at a floundering Lib Dem MP getting slaughtered by a seventeen-year-old on Channel 4 news was maliciously delightful.
OK they have a point about the reporting being a distortion of the proposals. Peter Wilby defends them from the left here, though False Economy challenges the statistics on equity in this interesting post. However, this MP looked unbearably smug when he remembered the bit about part-time students and them now having access to loans on the same basis as full-timers, so not having to pay up-front fees. He almost grinned when he talked of how people with low incomes had been deterred from taking up part-time study by up-front fees and that they were now rectifying the situation.
That was the moment I exploded. The newscaster and the articulate seventeen-year old were flummoxed. They didn't have a clue about part-time learning. Neither did the MP. I do. It was my job for fourteen years. There is currently a national scheme, introduced in 1997, now rolled out through local authorities, that ensures that low income students' fees are paid in full - a grant not a loan. Low income students on part-time degrees now pay no fees. Under these proposals they will have to pay back a loan for much higher fees. This is one area where it is unequivocally clear that the poorest are the losers.
Treating part-time students the same as full-time is long overdue and is welcome. Part-time students should not have had to pay fees up front when it was abolished for full-timers. But the current fee regime is NOT a deterrent to low income students who paid no fees at all. As for short courses, with low fees and generous fee remission schemes, which were mainly funded from teaching grant, it is hard to see how they can survive. Even in the rhetorical battle, ignorance of part-time learning is as widespread as ever.