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Thursday, 5 December, 2002, 13:01 GMT
Six Forum: Uni top-up fees - you asked the expert
Click here to watch the forum.
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
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