Wednesday, 29 October 2008

Student grants should be better targeted

Universities secretary John Denham has had to clawback on the grants regime he introduced shortly after his appointment last year. A family income ceiling of £50,020 rather than £60,000 will be imposed on those getting grants and starting university next year or later. But this still raises a bigger question.

The whole point of the new fees regime is supposed to be that no fees or maintenance costs are repaid until after graduation, and then only as a proportion of income over a minimum level. By extending the grants regime so dramatically last year - so that students from higher earning families get a few hundred pounds - at a time when university applications had defied the critics of fees and risen significantly, Denham was making a costly political gesture.

But it was also a serious strategic blunder in that it undermined government efforts to sell the new loans regime. Denham should revisit the whole grants scheme, and refocus it to provide generous scholarships for poor bright students, especially those who would benefit most from courses at top universities not available near to home, and on students taking up strategically important and shortage subjects. Other resources should be targeted on persuading poorer youngsters to get decent A levels in the first place.

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