The left shoots itself in the foot over fees

Distasteful as they may find the comparison, the left-wing opponents of higher university fees make the same error as those who once opposed the abolition of grammar schools. Just as grammar schools, contrary to myth, were overwhelmingly the preserve of the middle classes, so now are nearly all the universities, particularly the elite ones that are most likely to take advantage of the opportunity to charge more. Grammar schools were defended on the grounds that their loss would deprive a small number of bright children from poor homes of a privileged education - and never mind that the vast majority of the poor were condemned to second-class schools. The argument for free (or nearly free) university education is remarkably similar: we must continue to subsidise privilege so that a minority of the unprivileged can share it. Right-wing papers such as the Daily Mail are at least clear-eyed on fees: they oppose them because they are a "burden" on the middle classes. The left's attitude, for the most part, is simply muddled and sentimental.

Even after the changes outlined in the new white paper on higher education, all university students will still be heavily subsidised in two respects. First, because universities will be able to charge fees of no more than £3,000 a year, students will pay, at most, only 75 per cent of the costs of their courses, and often considerably less. Second, what they do pay will continue to be deferred at zero interest. This leaves less money available to help poor students. There will be no certain relief from these extra fees for those from poor homes, though, like other students, they will not now have to pay anything until after they have graduated and started to earn more than £15,000 a year. They may also (if they are very poor) get a £1,000-a-year means-tested maintenance grant. But higher education could still end up costing them roughly £2,700 more than it does now if they go to universities (almost certainly including Oxford and Cambridge) that charge the top fee.

Thus the left, by opposing the principle of higher fees - and forcing ministers to compromise on their level - has shot itself (or at least social justice) in the foot. To be fair, Charles Clarke, the Education Secretary, has left the door open for further discussions on grants and fee exemptions and it is on these that the left should now concentrate. But it should remember that any money that helps out old Etonians is money that is not available for other purposes. These include improvements in university research and teaching facilities (which have been sacrificed over the past decade) and help for poor students. They also include resources for other sectors of education: the pre-school years, for example, where the greatest and most irreversible damage to the prospects of bright children from deprived homes occurs. Unfortunately, toddlers are unable to command the support of leader writers or organise marches on London's streets.

The main argument against university fees for those who can afford them (or will be able to after graduation) is that, for the sake of social solidarity, certain public goods should be free to users from all classes. Why charge for universities and not for schools, libraries, hospitals or municipal parks? The answer is that universities alone impose selective entry bars for their use. Those bars, moreover, tend to exclude the poor, who are less likely to acquire the necessary qualifications. There can be no justice or solidarity in financing from gen-eral taxation a service from which half the population, and mostly the poorer half, is excluded. The middle classes moan about paying for those social security services which they think they are unlikely ever to need. Why should they expect working-class taxpayers to subsidise services from which their own children are all too likely to be barred?

As long as taxpayers continue to contribute to university finance, therefore, ministers have every right to demand that higher education be at least free of unfair social discrimination. The white paper rightly proposes an "access regulator" and rightly proposes to increase the extra funds that universities get for recruiting the disadvantaged. The universities call it social engineering. Those are just boo words; broader access can be justified on educational grounds. Universities are supposed to look for potential. Recent research showed that students from state schools do better in their degrees than those from private schools even where they have identical A-level scores. From this it follows that university entry should be heavily biased to recruits from the state sector. It is not. Instead of pursuing its foolish campaign on fees, the left should encourage ministers to pursue this issue as vigorously as they can.

Show us your WMDs, Rebekah

Why is Hans Blix, the inspector in charge of the UN team in Iraq, so afraid of the new editor of the Sun, Rebekah Wade (see Observations, page 12)? Can it be that she arouses, in Mr Blix's mind, memories of his fellow Swede Pippi Longstocking, the red-plaited terror who could lift a horse with her bare hands? And why does he speak of her in the same breath as Saddam Hussein? The answer must be that another task awaits Mr Blix, and it would indeed be of great public service if he were to carry it out. This is to discover whether the Sun deserves the awe in which it is held by ministers, who clearly frame many of their policies and statements to impress its leader writers. As Amanda Platell points out (page 34), the readers don't take any notice of it, so why does new Labour? Are there weapons of mass destruction at Wapping? Mr Blix should complete his business in Iraq, screw up his courage and hasten there at once.