Blair falling on sword of education reform?

Tony Blair faces a double political challenge this week that could end his career. The results of the Hutton Inquiry due Wednesday could deliver damning information on the government's role in naming weapons inspector David Kelley, who later killed himself, as the source of an embarrassing leak about Britain's participation in the Iraq war. But the prime minister's battle to pass college tuition reform is perhaps as crucial to his political survival - and could personally affect many more Britons.

His support of raising fees for college tuition is, once again, an act of political courage that has earned him the scorn of opposition politicians, his own party, and a wide swath of the British public.

Mr. Blair is seeking parliamentary approval for university funding reforms in a vote tuesday. He seeks higher tuition fees in British public universities, and wants to allow the schools themselves to determine how much to charge, up to a maximum of £3,000 annually. Students would be able to delay payment until they're earning £15,000 annually. The new fees would also finance compulsory bursaries for poor students, and those who never break the salary barrier would have debts written off after 25 years. The "top up" charges would replace the £1,125 annual fee that students now pay up front. Even with students contributing more, general taxation would still pay more than 80 percent of the cost.

To most Americans, Blair's proposal wouldn't seem shocking in an era where parents expect thousands in debt for public and private university education. But transatlantic sensibilities on education, health, and nearly any issue pitting government obligations against taxpayers can be oceans apart.

Many here expect universities to be funded largely by the government through taxation. Three recent polls conducted by British polling firms Populus, YouGov, and ICM all found about a third of respondents supporting tax-based college funding.

Nonetheless, there seems to be growing recognition that students should foot more of the bill. The same polls found that between 40 and 65 percent believe students ought to contribute to their education but agree with Blair's postponed repayment. A majority of respondents on lower rungs of the economic ladder who did not attend university also considered the plan fair.

Another fear is that by encouraging universities to compete for students, the resulting variation in fees would lead to deterioration in academic standards and a two-tier system.

But the two-tier system exists already, even without open competition. Lesser-known universities are dependent on government-set tuition fees and funding, but renowned schools like Oxford and Cambridge secure extra funding from alumni donations and international students who pay higher fees.

Ironically, though Britons have benefited from competition in other formerly monopolized sectors (such as telecommunications), they still resist the introduction of "competition" into certain public goods, such as education or health.

Complaints about the quality and efficiency of British public services - from the National Health Service to the education system to public transportation - are widespread, especially because perpetual tax hikes haven't generally been accompanied by corresponding improvements.

The Labour Party was elected on its promise to address these issues and institute needed reform. Blair's government has attempted to do so with a variety of solutions that introduce more competition, greater personal responsibility, and, in some cases, privatization.

But many of the most radical proposals have been watered down. As public sector jobs have increased during Blair's tenure, so has the opposition to cutbacks that might reduce such positions.

There are also concerns that poorly implemented privatization efforts failed to improve service. The tuition fees battle is a sign of broader political rumblings. Leading Labour Party rebels are airing their frustration with Blair's leadership and what they call a betrayal of the party's socialist raison d'être. The Conservative Party, which generally favors limited government intervention and opposes tax hikes, seems to be pandering to the mood. Lingering public anger and mistrust over Iraq has given Blair's Labour and Conservative opponents added impetus to strike.

Punishing Blair won't improve higher ed. Nor will it achieve the aims of Labour ideologues who balk at the notion of multitier anything. Rather, it will perpetuate an inadequate system, where renowned universities get by with extra foreign-student fees and alumni donations while the majority of universities remain underfunded.

Weakening Blair inherently weakens the Labour Party and what little is left of a much needed reform agenda. And it will harden opposition to innovative proposals that could genuinely improve services.

Margalit Edelman is a writer in London and media director of the International Policy Network.

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