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EDITIONS
HE case studies Wednesday, 22 January, 2003, 18:01 GMT
Leeds students unimpressed
Amy Thompson
Amy Thompson: Working with poorer youngsters

With debts of 21,000 already accumulated, student Amy Thompson is not really expecting much to change for the better from the government's announcement on higher education funding.

A student at Leeds Metropolitan University, she is particularly opposed to allowing different universities to charge different levels of fees.

And new institutions such as hers could be labelled the "poor man's university," she warns.

The deferment of tuition fees until after graduation is welcome, she says.

Put off by debt

But the return of maintenance grants, she thinks, is a "token gesture" which will make little impact on the scale of the debt that has now become "part of the culture".

These youngsters are put off by debt ... the thousands of pounds talked about is a fortune for them

Amy Thompson

She is also involved in the efforts to widen access to her university, visiting schools in deprived areas from which the government wants to recruit more students.

And for the local youngsters she encourages to think about going to university, she thinks that the re-shaping of tuition fees will not make much difference.

"These youngsters are put off by debt, but the specific amounts mean nothing to them.

"The thousands of pounds talked about is a fortune for them. It would be for their parents."

Alien environment

For these young people the link between becoming a student and getting into debt will remain, she says, no matter how the boundaries are shifted around.

And she sees little sign that the changes will encourage youngsters who already believe that they "wouldn't fit in" in an unfamiliar university environment.

But her own high levels of debt, acquired during a PE degree, are not keeping her awake at night.

"I sometimes worry, but everyone is in the same situation.

"Everyone is in debt. We're encouraged to borrow."

'Bank not brain'

Like many other students, she has worked while she has studied, including three nights a week in an off-licence, but the debts have continued to rise.

Olivia Montague
Olivia Montague: New grant "a pittance"

What worries her more is the prospect that getting a well-paid job to pay off her debts seems to be becoming more difficult, and she says she has graduate friends who are stuck for years in low-paid work.

Her student union president, Olivia Montague, is scathing about the increase in student fees, asking how they can be squared with the government's aspiration to widen participation.

She also attacks the plan to allow different universities to set their own fees and says it will encourage elitism within higher education and that admissions will depend on "bank not brain".

Debt remains a deterrence for applicants, particularly for poorer students, she says. And the "pittance" of a maintenance grant will not change that.

Elite institution

The fear that allowing universities to set their own level of fees would promote social divisiveness was echoed by students at the University of Leeds.

Lucy Abell
We'll still be paying for our higher education when our own children are starting at university

Lucy Abell

At the opposite end of the spectrum from Leeds Metropolitan, this is a member of the prestigious Russell Group of research-led universities and student leaders are concerned that poorer applicants could be priced out.

Students' union spokesperson, Lucy Abell, warned that this could see the emergence of higher-charging, socially exclusive universities.

She says she comes from a poorer background herself, and if there had been a price difference between institutions it would have influenced her choice of university.

Middle England hit

There could be a particular squeeze on middle income families, she says, who will miss out on support and will face the full level of debt.

"The very poor students will be encouraged by grants. And the rich have never had to worry in the first place.

"But the people in the middle will have to worry," she says.

And it could mean they look for cheaper courses to avoid debt, leaving the leading universities to the wealthy.

It would be much fairer, she argues, if there was a fixed, flat-rate charge regardless of institution or course.

Despite approving of the end of up-front fees, she says students will be disappointed by the overall package of proposals.

"The government has let us down.

"We'll still be paying for our higher education when our own children are starting at university."

See also:

20 Jan 03 | Education
14 Jan 03 | Education
11 Jan 03 | Mike Baker
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