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Friday, 22 November, 2002, 11:00 GMT
Will university top-up fees create elitism?
International Development Secretary Clare Short has become the first cabinet minister to publicly declare opposition to the proposal of top-up fees for universities.

The idea that middle-class students would pay more to attend top universities is being considered by the government to tackle severe under-funding in higher education.

Voicing her opposition to the plans in an interview with the Guardian on Monday, Ms Short says it would "create two-tier universities and the rich would pay extra fees and go to the classy, elitist universities rather like the US".

On Sunday, Higher Education Minister Margaret Hodge confirmed the government was considering introducing top-up fees or "graduate tax" in January, in a long-awaited review of student and university finance.

Do you think that top-up fees are necessary to improve higher education finances? Or would they create a culture of elitism?

This Talking Point was suggested by Karen, UK:

Higher top-up fees. Are we reaching the stage where only the well-off and well-funded foreign students can go to university?

If you have any suggestions for Talking Points,

Thank you for your e-mails. This debate is now closed. A selection of your comments is published below.

The elitism at university should be academic not fiscal.
Christopher, UK

The average graduate pays 100,000 more in tax

Dave Tankard, UK
The average graduate earns 400,000 more in their life than the average non-graduate. Assuming a tax take of 25% this means that the average graduate pays 100,000 more in tax than the non-graduate. Why, does the government feel that people should pay to go to university, when those that do clearly pay far more in taxes throughout their working life?
Dave Tankard, UK

The real irony here of course is that if you look around the Cabinet and see how many of them went to University ONLY because they were helped by the government of the day to do so, then it's a crying shame that it is they who are pulling up the ladder behind them as they squeeze out the possibilities for ordinary people from ordinary schools and homes to get to Universities.
Aidan, Brit in Italy

I would have to give up my course if Leicester decided to add on substantial top-up fees. I am not alone - all ten of my housemates would have to give up and none of us are particularly poor. I accepted when I came to Uni that I would leave with a big debt BUT not a debt of over 30000. If this system does come into play there will be an exodus of very intelligent students. Goodbye to the meritocracy system, then.
Ben Johnson, England

The NUS is doing significant damage to the debate by insisting that students shouldn't pay anything. The majority of my student friends would not mind paying in some way for their education - it's the new reality. However, the damage to access caused by top-up fees means that they are definitely NOT the answer.
Simon C, UK

The assumption that top quality education necessarily leads to greater financial gain is ill-founded.

Ben, UK
I have just graduated with a 2.1 from Oxford University, and I am currently employed in a job worth 11k pa. The assumption that top quality education necessarily leads to greater financial gain is ill-founded. Currently I face the spectre of repaying 15,000. What would people in my position do if top up fees were introduced? We should abolish fees and introduce a system similar to the Scottish one in England and Wales. That will solve the funding system without denying an education to those who have worked hard and deserve it.
Ben, UK

The concept of charging even more for university tuition is highly unfair. I'm the second child in my family to go to university, but by the time I've finished, the total debt between my brother and I will be somewhere in the region of 30,000. We come from a relatively poor background, for want of a better word. Figures like the one above scare me enough as it is, without having to think about what the outcome could be if we were charged more. It annoys me so much because many young people are prevented from achieving their full potential and getting the jobs they want, because they just can't afford it. We should be encouraging these people, not hindering them.
Rhea, England

I have worked in Universities all my life and feel qualified to comment here. Universities are chronically under-funded with poor pay, low morale and an ever increasing number of students to whom we give an increasingly degraded service. Politicians may like to believe that the widening of access is a good thing per se but it is not if the quality drops through the floor and keeps plunging. The system needs more money.

The system used to one of the UK's great strengths but now we struggle on a daily basis to hold the sinking ship together. Small wonder there has been a rush to accept early retirement by many colleagues. This will make the lot of those who remain even worse, both staff and students. Either students pay more, which I do not believe in, or we get more funds from central government. As things stand the system is going downhill fast.
Keith, UK

Reduce the number of students and we can return to a sensible way of doing things

Rich, UK
It's funny how the NUS moaned about grant levels when grants existed. Now under Labour who they openly supported, we have gone from academic elitism to financial elitism. And it is the price that has to be paid for allowing almost anyone to go to university. Reduce the number of students and we can return to a sensible way of doing things.
Rich, UK

Expecting students to accrue vast debts to start off their working lives, with the prospect of not being able to afford decent housing without a substantial deposit on top of those debts, not exactly incentives to go on and better yourself by getting a degree. We need well trained people to lead, manage and develop in our economy. Lets fund them appropriately, and not put insurmountable financial blocks in their paths.
Sam Maddin, UK

There are quite simply to many people going to university now, and it's set to get worse. The current crisis in funding could be resolved if we stopped trying to reduce the dole queues this way. Not only is there not enough money to go round but it is devaluing the degree.
Steve, UK

Few students could afford the extra fees; even fewer taxpayers wish to pay more. Neither, though, should be issues: students should pay extra fees on credit, repaying them only after a high threshold income is surpassed. Large debts are compensated by the increased probability of employment (and of higher income employment) that a graduate has. The individual thus invests in higher education alongside the state.

From my experience, students work much harder in the US. The prospect of future debts is met with the knowledge of the relative financial advantages of attaining a good degree. Top-up fees would improve the dismally tipsy work ethic of the British student - this, not funding, not access, is the most significant difference with US universities. British workers shall not bankroll indolence.
Dave, Cambridge MA, USA

As a Brit living in the US, I have been very proud to tell everyone about our education system but now it seems that we are heading towards the same system that operates here. It seems to me that there are too many people needlessly attending university when the training they need for their profession could probably be achieved in a good old apprenticeship type scheme instead of a "useless" degree in an obscure subject. Let's ensure that students studying science and engineering get free tutoring. Those still wanting to study minor subject may have to face a fee unless they are sponsored by industry.
Philip, USA

Why do we insist on following the US examples of how to do things when they are proven to not work. Let's look at the intelligent rich countries like Sweden for ideas on how to do things. The entire country should bear the cost through taxation. The growing gap between rich and poor is only going to make our society more and more unstable.
Stu Waddell, UK

Complaints from students about struggling with high costs through their university years would have a lot more credence if they spent less of their precious money in bars! Look around any university or student residential area and you will find bars and restaurants thriving - how can supposedly hard-up students afford it? Beats me. Obviously, they are not as poor as they make out. Increase the fees, I say. Students should learn about personal financial responsibility early on and not selfishly perpetuate the belief culture that someone else has to pay for their privileges.
John Whitney, UK

The old adage that you get what you pay for rings truer and truer with each academic year that passes. I spent 3 years at UCL and got a degree that isn't worth the paper it is written on. Moreover, the concept that you earn more money with a degree relies on the tenet that a job exists when you graduate. American universities charge fees, they offer better facilities, better education and produce all round better graduates, whether they are ivy league or state universities. The money has to come from somewhere, and its time students woke up to this fact, or the universities they wish to attend will end up like the embalmed body of Jeremy Bentham in the south wing at UCL
Vincent R, UK

Current government policy is a joke - 50% of people into higher education will never happen, it just succeeds in making it more expensive for those talented individuals who have the potential to go to university but cannot necessarily afford it. It is another obstacle these people do not need - the government is in fact deterring the very people it is trying to attract to university, and top-up fees will simply make the situation worse.
Paul Younger, England

I graduated at a time when you qualified to get to University by academic achievement, to see my degree devalued by the introduction of "degrees for those who can afford it" makes me very angry. To further compound this by making the University you attend a factor of your parents' wealth and not your ability will only make this worse. When looking at foreign countries for ideas don't forget to look at the downside as well as the upside of these ides.
Dave Hitchman, England

The government is making the old Oxbridge stereotypes come true

AJR, Oxford University, UK
Here at Oxford officials are being extremely evasive about whether they will introduce top-up fees, or how much these fees will be. Many of us (including myself) may have to leave as we will be unable to afford these fees, means-tested or not. The government is in danger of making the old Oxbridge stereotypes come true by creating universities for the rich. I can see why so many universities need to charge fees; if the government will not make more funding available soon then many institutions will be bankrupt.
AJR, Oxford University, UK

We should grade degrees, thus, science would get bigger grants due to our country's need for science. Useless subjects may be interesting (history of art anyone?) but serve no real purpose, as one friend of mine found out and is now going back to university to do a degree that will actually lead to a job! A degree grading scale would encourage students to go into the fields of excellence that our country so badly needs and stop giving out grants for more than one degree per person!
Fraser Heath, Aberdeen, UK

I don't see how adding to fees would help the country in the long term

Alison Bell, UK
Being a graduate myself with huge debts to pay off, I think it is crazy to make students pay more. Most students will go on to get a good job with relatively good earnings, therefore putting a significant amount of money back into the system. I think students deserve to have some initial investment if this is the case. I don't see how adding to fees would help the country in the long term.
Alison Bell, UK

British society has a choice to make. There are three possibilities: 1) students will have to pay realistic fees or 2) the tax burden will have to increase to pay for universities or 3) there will be continuing decline in the British university system. The last means that if you want to have decent university education you will have to go to the elite US universities: this will hardly promote access to higher education and make a proper university education even more impossible except for the very rich. Either we have to pay or we will see increasing decline.
John W Cairns, Scotland

Just 15 years ago, the British higher education system was one of the best in the world. Students could receive grants because there were far fewer of them. The simultaneous drives to offer education on the cheap, "widen participation" (i.e. siphon people off the dole queue), elbow out courses that don't involve marketing or media studies, and crowbar the dogma of market economics into public services, have left our education system a shambles and an embarrassment.
Frank, UK

I won't mind paying, as long as I'm paying for genuinely appropriate candidates, who are genuinely working-class and cash stricken, and going into a genuinely top uni. I don't want to pay for stragglers who just amble into any old uni, doing any old course, just because they've nothing else to do. If the government is serious about this then I hope it is planned carefully, so as not to alienate borderline people who are not eligible for such help.
Nathan Hamer, Durham University, England

At the moment students are taking out loans which barely cover accommodation costs, and then have to take part time jobs, or depend on their parents to live. I can assure you that large numbers of people will be put off from aspiring to university if top-up fees are used, because of the significant negative impact this will have on their parents, siblings and their own future finances.
Janice, Northern Ireland

Without parental support the current student loan will only just cover the costs of accommodation in some parts of the country. Why not just give grants to those who really can't afford to study to at least give them a fighting chance.
Phil, UK

University education is not a cost, it is an investment

Tom, UK
Graduates pay back the cost of their education by adding value to the economy, they tend to earn more - so pay more taxes. Under the loan scheme and the top-up proposals, graduates are effectively being taxed twice. The only way to give all people the chance to fulfil their potential is to fund university education from the public purse. To make this efficient and simple, fees for the rich should be introduced at a high threshold. The alternative is a return to the elitism of before the 1960s, when people had degrees because they bought them or won one of a handful of scholarships. University education is not a cost, it is an investment.
Tom, UK

Although I am not particularly socialist, I do believe that university education is a right for anyone skilled enough. My father came from a very poor area of Grimsby, but he was able to gain a PhD in nuclear physics. This would not have happened if top-up fees were around then, and it would not be possible for many talented working class, and lower middle class kids to better themselves if they are introduced now.
Mark, England

Higher education is not a free lunch being subsidised by "ordinary" taxpayers. Students with degrees will earn more than if they'd gone straight into the workplace and as a result will pay a lot more income tax. The extra tax on their extra earnings justifies and pays for their education. Top-up fees would make students pay for their education twice. They are not necessary to fund higher education, perhaps it's time for a grown-up debate about taxation.
Tom March, England

People aren't so desperate to come here that they will run up 40,000 of debt

Stuart, Imperial College, London, UK
Why not give the universities the money that used to be put aside for student grants? Or has it already been spent on something more deserving, like the Millennium Dome? Imperial and all the other universities which think these fees are a good idea need to get over themselves. People aren't so desperate to come here that they will run up 40,000 of debt to do so.
Stuart, Imperial College, London, UK

As someone who works in a university I can confirm that billions of pounds are wasted every year on bureaucracy and the schemes of publicity seeking politicians to widen participation in order to reduce unemployment. If all of this money was spent on student grants, there would be no need to have student loans or top up fees.
Dave, England

I'm a Brit living in the US. My daughter just started at a prestigious US university. One year's tuition and living expenses cost more than I earn in a year. Nevertheless, she gets grants and loans and the university provides work opportunities. Our parental contribution is just bearable at about a sixth of the annual cost. She will have significant debt when she graduates, which, depending on whether she goes for a higher degree or gets a job, will take about 10 years to repay. But it's the same for everyone and, painful as it is, most people handle it without too much trouble. I think this is where the UK is heading.
Penny, USA

The richest 20-30% of students cough up and the rest get help with bursaries

Sarah, UK
It doesn't matter that not everyone can afford it: not everyone has to pay! The richest 20-30% of students cough up and the rest get help with bursaries. The alternatives are continued inadequate facilities, demoralised staff and huge classes or more money from taxpayers, most of whom have not had the benefit of a university education and will never do so. Would you rather have public school kids paying the real cost of their degrees or people working in lower-paid jobs subsidising them?
Sarah, UK

The government wants a "knowledge based economy", but yet under funds universities. Without adequate state funding the only way our top universities can stay world class and deliver well educated graduates is by increasing fees. I would love to see a 'free' higher education system, provided by adequately state funded universities. Remember that the next generation of students will make wealth not just for themselves but for the country as a whole as well as paying our pensions. We at least owe them a good education.
Greg, UK

Getting a university education is great, but the debt left over can be overwhelming and the present job market not a guarantee for employment after the 3/4 years of studying. In the place I studied there were students driving Range Rovers, Jaguars and at the other end of the spectrum, students with nothing to eat in their cupboards, if higher fees are introduced the latter class of students will not exist, creating greater divisions and more slums in the UK.
Roger, England

If the government wants us to pay more for education then it should drop taxes

Tom, UK
If the government wants us to pay more for public services such as education then it should drop taxes. We pay European levels of tax (tax as percentage of GDP is higher than Germany) and get American levels of public services, the worst of both worlds!
Tom, UK

Although I agree that universities need more funding, I think that demanding that students either pay up or give up any hope of a degree is unreasonable. I am a full time student, and although my family isn't particularly poor, it is still very difficult to find the money to go through university. As it is, I expect to have a debt of about 15,000 myself when I graduate, not counting the 10,000 or so my family have had to contribute. Any more would push me and them even further into the red. Is this really the government that wants 50% of the population to go to university? If so, how are that 50% going to afford it, unless "Education, Education, Education" only applies to the richest 50%, not the most able!
David, UK

Education only for the rich then? Would the government have us put poor children back up the chimneys, or shall we put them down the pits like the good old days? So much for Blair's plans for higher education for all.
Paul, Wales

This UK Ivy League will be based on elitist principles and will favour the rich and privileged

Jo Salmon, Lampeter, Wales
If top up fees are introduced, then the government can wave goodbye to its 50% attendance target. The only thing that top up fees will achieve will be to create a two-tier education system and this so-called UK Ivy League will be based on elitist principles and will favour the rich and the privileged, not the majority of the population who deserve to enter higher education but are prevented from doing so, as the ultimate cost is over 12,000, and most of us just can't afford it.
Jo Salmon, Lampeter, Wales

Top-up fees have to be the way forward if the elite UK universities are to compete in a global arena. UK students have to begin to realise that if they want the best education, which should then lead to the best paid jobs, they have to be prepared to pay for it. Students here in the US know they have to pay and will expect to pay more to attend a better university. The money pays for better facilities and decent wages for good academic staff. That said, there must always be bursaries available for gifted, less well-off students.
Dr Jeremy Marchant Forde, UK/USA

No, no way, never. I've never seen such student activism at IC - it's amazing, let's hope it works.
Sam, Imperial College, London, UK

I would not be able to afford the extra fees, and it would certainly deter people from going to university, especially the top unis in the country. On whether or not the extra fees would help finances would depend on getting the students into the university in the first place; no students = no money, therefore would they just charge more?
Simon Pascoe, England

See also:

17 Oct 02 | Education
17 Oct 02 | Education
11 Jul 02 | Education
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