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 Thursday, 5 December, 2002, 13:01 GMT
Six Forum: Uni top-up fees - you asked the expert
University students
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    Students from across the UK have gathered in London for a mass protest against student debt and any increase in fees.

    The protest was organised by the National Union of Students (NUS), which is calling on the government to abandon plans to introduce top-up tuition fees.

    Ministers are looking closely at the idea of charging students fees of three or four times what they currently pay to go to university, with some institutions aiming to charge as much as 15,000.

    The government is seeking ways of getting students to pay more towards their education because of a big shortfall in university funds, and Chancellor Gordon Brown is thought to favour a Scottish-style graduate tax instead.

    What's the most sensible way to fund higher education? Are top-up fees a backward step towards elitism in higher education? Are you willing to pay higher fees?

    Manisha Tank was joined by Richard Brown, chief executive of the Council for Industry and Higher Education, who answered your questions in LIVE forum for the Six O'Clock News.


    Manisha Tank:

    Welcome to this Six Forum. Mass protests have been taking place in London as students from across the UK speak out against the rising cost of going to university.

    The National Union of Students (NUS) is calling on the Government to abandon plans to introduce top-up tuition fees. Ministers say it's a difficult matter but they're looking closely at the idea of charging students fees of three or four times current levels.

    So how do we fund higher education and should the students pay? Maybe there should be graduate tax - all sorts of ideas could be in the mix.

    I'm joined by Richard Brown, Chief Executive of the Council for Industry and Higher Education. Good evening Mr Brown, we've had masses of e-mails on this subjects and text messages also. Obviously a very important matter with some saying this could be Tony Blair's poll tax - likening it to the time of Margaret Thatcher and her problems over that particular rise in taxes. This is how the students are seeing it and the mass protests are obviously an example of that.

    We're going to start with an e-mail from Bernard, UK: Has the need for top up fees arisen because of the Government's idea that 50% of people in England should go to university?

    Richard Brown:

    Higher education is absolutely vital for the economic performance of this country therefore it's in all of our interests that it is properly funded and I'm afraid to say that successive governments have been starving it of cash. So we now have a position where about half of our universities are in deficit and the total bill just to repair infrastructure and buildings and laboratories, is something like 7.8 billion. So that's an enormous amount of money and the question is how do we try and find that funding.

    Well I'd suggest that first of all the Government and indeed the taxpayer - you and I - have to pay because we undoubtedly benefit from higher education. But so also do the graduates. Graduate earnings are substantially higher as a result of going onto higher education and I'm sure there's an element that they must be chip in as well.

    As regards the 50% target in the question - we have to think that we are moving into a more knowledge-based economy so we do need more people that have the skills, experience and knowledge that you get from going through higher education.

    I think we might argue that the skills gap exists at the advanced vocational level which is just below the full degree level. So maybe we should try and persuade the Government to focus its expansion in areas that really meet the skill needs of the UK at that level.

    Manisha Tank:

    There are two things I want to pick up on there. The first of them is, you mentioned the graduates and perhaps the graduates chipping in. We have an e-mail from Michelle, UK: Will the Government start to pay their public sector graduates - teachers, doctors, etc, more, so that they can afford the graduate taxes and loan repayments that they will face under this situation?

    Another e-mail from Ben Griffin, England: If graduates earn "on average" 400,000 pounds more over a lifetime doesn't your average person then already pay for their education through the higher amounts of tax they pay on this 400,000? Wouldn't charging top-up fees mean they pay twice?

    Richard Brown:

    Everybody should contribute through taxation. But remember higher education, unlike schooling, is not compulsory - it's a choice that individuals have. And remember that some 60% of people that leave school don't go on to higher education. Now we may want more to go on but at the moment they don't. So is it right that those 60%, who I'm afraid at the moment come from generally poorer backgrounds, should subsidise those individuals that do go on to higher education that are generally from richer backgrounds and that then go on to earn, as you've said, on average some 400,000 additional and I think we need to question, is that right.

    Manisha Tank:

    Dr Lucy Reynolds, London: I am one of the first generation in my family who was able to go to university (Oxford followed by PhD at Cambridge) and currently work as an itinerant post-doctoral scientific researcher on a fixed-term contract. Is it right that I may not be able to afford to send my own children to university?

    Richard Brown:

    I think it's absolutely right that the Government must establish as a principle - as we believe - that no one should be excluded from going onto higher education because of the fear of student debt and the overhang of student debt while they go through higher education. So I think we might be able to address that in a couple of ways. The first is that students themselves shouldn't have that liability - that liability should only crystallize after they have become graduates and are starting to earn money.

    Second, if we look at what happens in Australia - there, there is repayment through the tax system but if your income is up to a certain threshold and doesn't exceed it, then you don't repay. It's the richer students - those students that might be lawyers rather than the nurse students - it's the lawyers that would pay and the nurses would not pay.

    Manisha Tank:

    Obviously there's a debate going on about who should pay and who shouldn't. We've flirted there with the idea of graduates in certain professions chipping in here or there.

    Richard Brown:

    Those earning above a certain income.

    Manisha Tank:

    But there's obviously the people who we're talking about - those people's parents stumping up extra cash and how they are assessed. Now we've had an anonymous text message in: There's something nobody mentioned - every student having a financial assessment and students who earn or their families earn above limit have to pay. So can you educate us on how things work at the moment so that we can go forward?

    Richard Brown:

    At the moment there's means-testing and I think this is a really interesting issue because people who are 18 years of age are legally adults - they're not children - so why should their parents' income be taken into account. It's the graduates that actually benefit and shouldn't it be the graduates that therefore pay.

    Manisha Tank:

    Alistair Duncan, UK: Isn't the answer to the problem is to reduce the number of people going to university by enforcing high standards of entry and abolishing degrees in subjects that are of no use to society?

    We've had another e-mail from Colin in the UK who has two children at universities and is scared that they may have to leave should the top-up fees go up. He asks: The Government continues to tell us that we do not have enough engineers and technicians, so we get people to come here from abroad and fill the gaps? Won't top off fees add to this problem?

    That perhaps is indicating a structural problem that we have. A lot of our talent is going abroad, so we've had people writing in suggesting that our talent should be encouraged to stay in this country and contribute.

    Richard Brown:

    I think that's right and remember that because of the quality of UK higher education, many students come to this country and they contribute something like 1.3 billion to our economy. So it is absolutely right that we need to have a properly funded system of higher education but a system of higher education where those that can afford to pay do and those that can't don't have to pay and I think that's the essence of what we're discussing this evening.

    Manisha Tank:

    We've had another text message come in - it's anonymous unfortunately - we do encourage our viewers to send in their names and where they're from. It asks: If the Government are serious about lowering the UK's unemployment rates, they would make it easy for people who want permanent careers to go to university.

    I know that you're putting together a report and you advise the Government about these sorts of things. How do you tend to address these issues?

    Richard Brown:

    I think perhaps we need to distinguish between the traditional school leaver that goes to higher education and so often the debate seems to revolve around young school leavers and I guess the NUS perhaps particularly thinks about those and protects their interests. But just remember that over one-third of individuals that go to higher education actually work part-time and they work their way through higher education and at the moment they pay full fees. So at an institution in central London where 50% of its students are part-time they are paying already considerably more than those young people who have left school and I think we have to remember that and put this issue in perspective.

    Manisha Tank:

    Vic Elliott, UK asks: I already struggle to pay for my fees. Does the Government not realise that more fees means more part-time jobs which means poor standard degrees?

    Richard Brown:

    I think that's why we're suggesting that tuition fees should not be charged on students but should be, as I said earlier, crystallized at graduation. But I think we perhaps need to make a distinction between tuition fees and the maintenance costs. It's very costly to live in central London, for example, and go to university and the same in many other cities.

    What we're proposing to the Government is that they should consider a higher education maintenance allowance that focuses on supporting those from the poorest backgrounds to get through and maintain themselves in higher education. Because actually it's the maintenance cost - the living costs - that are actually higher than the tuition costs at the moment. Sometimes the two seems to get rather confused and it's useful to distinguish between them.

    Manisha Tank:

    Rebecca has sent us text message from Bristol: Right up until the mid-20th century only rich people went to university - now Labour is devising a class divide again with top-up fees - why?

    I'm not going to ask you, Mr Brown, to get into the political debate but given that I know that you will be talking to the Government and giving some advice, can you tell us briefly what sorts of ideas you're council is putting forward to the Government?

    Richard Brown:

    First of all I think that on this particular point of fees, we are suggesting that tuition fees should be levied only after an individual has graduated.

    Second, that institutions should be free to charge whatever they think is appropriate. They are independent organisations - we sometimes forget that they're independent organisations and they're not part of the public sector. So they should be free to charge fees and that may mean a lowering of fees and although you talk about top-up fees, actually differential fees mean some can be lower and some can be higher and they should relate more to the ability of individuals to pay, so that the lawyer pays more, the nurse pays less. But we see this as part of an overall framework of freeing higher education institutions from the straightjacket of the state.

    Manisha Tank:

    I'm afraid we're out of time so we're going to have to finish there. Richard Brown, Chief Executive of the Council for Industry and Higher Education.

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    See also:

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