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EDITIONS
 Friday, 17 January, 2003, 16:17 GMT
Tuition fees: Is payment after graduating the best way?

  Click here to watch the forum.

  • Click here to read the transcript


    The government has made a U-turn on the issue of students paying up-front tuition fees, BBC News has learned.

    English universities will be able to raise their tuition fees to 3-4,000 a year from the current 1,100 but students will pay off the debt once they're earning, the government is expected to make public next week.

    Those going into employment with the public sector will get a "golden handcuffs" deal where their debts are paid off if they stay in their jobs.

    Mandy Telford of the National Union of Students says varying fees would mean "richer students will have the advantage of being able to pick and choose what course they do and where they go, while poorer ones will go where they can afford to."

    Are the proposals fair? Has the government resolved the higher education funding crisis with this plan? What would be a better option?

    You put your questions to Mandy Telford, president of the National Union of Students.


    Transcript:


    Gary Eason:

    Welcome to this BBC News Online interactive forum. I'm Gary Eason. The debate about what is going to happen to university fees is reaching fever pitch with the Government's long-awaited strategy document due to be published finally next week.

    But ministers are reportedly still at odds over the plans - a version leaked to the BBC suggesting fees might rise by several thousand pounds a year, but all to be repaid after people graduate. With us to discuss the issue, and answer your questions, is the president of the National Union of Students, Mandy Telford. Mandy, thank you for joining us.

    I start with a question from Mark Curry, London: Education is in desperate need of additional resources. The NUS continually says that students should not pay either more up front fees or paying via graduate tax/loan repayments after they graduate. Where does Mandy think the additional resources should come from?


    Mandy Telford:

    That's a very difficult question. We agree that education is in dire need of money; the universities need more money, the lecturers need more money as well. But students are cash-strapped at the moment and they've never been poorer - they are in greater levels of debt than ever before.

    We believe that if the Government actually put more money onto students - whether it's upfront or back ended, it doesn't matter - it's going to encourage more students either to drop out or not even to apply in the first place. So yes it is a very difficult question. We in the National Union Students don't particularly have an answer perhaps if I had Gordon Brown's books I might be able to come up with one.


    Gary Eason:

    Richard Geary, Leicester: Don't you think that reducing the number of people in university would be a better way for the Government to save money?


    Mandy Telford:

    No I don't agree with that one either. I think everybody who wants to go and can go to university should be able to go to university. For too long now only the rich and the well-off in society have been able to go and I don't believe that's right. I don't believe it is right for society or the education system that we want. We should be opening up the doors to everybody.


    Gary Eason:

    Oliver Taylor, London: Do you think universities should only be free for those who achieve top grades, so that taxpayers would be able to pay for a top notch university system and also be a lot more willing to do so?


    Mandy Telford:

    I think that would be a very difficult system to put in place because not all degrees are the same - you've got vocational degrees, you've got non-vocational degrees, you've got students studying higher qualifications in FE colleges - I think would be far too strict.

    I think we have to look at the university system we've got at the moment and the wide diverse range of courses and opportunities that there are for people there and make sure that everybody can get the course that they want and they're not having to drop out because they are too poor.


    Gary Eason:

    Chris Lambert, Canterbury: Do you think increasing tuition fees is going to cut off access to higher education for some students regardless of the way the payments are made?


    Mandy Telford:

    Yes, blatantly it will. Tuition fees haven't actually encouraged anybody from the lower income backgrounds to go to university. The number of students is going up but it's going up from the middle-classes and so the gap between the middle and the lower-classes has actually widened. Therefore increasing tuition fees, whether back-ended or front-ended, will actually put these students off because they have an inherent fear of debt.


    Gary Eason:

    Do you think that more people should have the opportunity of being students? The Government has this - what some people call arbitrary - target of a half of all young people going to university. Is that realistic?


    Mandy Telford:

    I don't know if 50% is realistic but I think it's important that we are encouraging more students to go to university. At the moment we've got huge sections of society that aren't even applying to go to university because they're scared of the debt that they're getting into, never mind whether they want or they have the capability to go and that's something that's something that we have to readdress.


    Gary Eason:

    Doesn't the proposals, if they're right, that we heard yesterday, address that to an extent? If you get rid of upfront fees then nobody is being asked to stump up the money before they go - they will only pay it once they're earning enough to do so. That answers that issue doesn't it?


    Mandy Telford:

    It answers part of the issue and the abolition of upfront fees is a huge victory if they're going to do it. For the National Union of Students, it's something we've been campaigning for and bringing back the grant for the poorer students because I do think the abolition of the grant hit those students that need the money the most - so bringing that back is a huge victory.

    However, these plans suggest that the Government might be allowing certain universities to charge 3,000 - 4,000 a year for tuition alone. That's going to double or maybe treble the debt students are going to get into. I don't really think it matters whether it's upfront or back ended, that amount of debt will put many people off.


    Gary Eason:

    Ralph Benker, London: How does the recent government policy shift affect students falling into the period when fees were charged upfront? Will interest on my loan be written off?

    What do you think should happen if it turns out that we've had a period when some people have been paying upfront and after that they won't?


    Mandy Telford:

    I think if they change things for the better everybody who has been paying it will cross their fingers and hope they'll change it for them as well but I can't see that happening. All the changes the Government ever make in student funding start from the next year. You sort of sign a contract when you go university, if you like, with the Government, on how you pay and what you pay and what you get from them and you have to continue on that. Unfortunately, I haven't wiped my loan out either.


    Gary Eason:

    Dominic Smith, Reading: Surely this should be welcomed? This is better than the system we have now and empowers students. It is their responsibility to pay back the fees and so it gives them the freedom to go where they like no matter how much their parents earn or how generous or otherwise they are. It is about how much you will earn not your parents.


    Mandy Telford:

    There is a good point in there about independence and allowing the student to make the choices. However, the problem that we have is that with the variation of fees at universities - some people are going to make the choice and it will be an easy choice for them because they won't be scared of the debt because they come from a wealthy background or their parents will help pay it upfront, that could happen as well. There are still those students who are going to look at the universities and look how much they charge and perhaps go to one that charges nothing or maybe just 1,000 a year instead of looking at the degree and what it is they actually want to study and I think that's quite dangerous.


    Gary Eason:

    We've been taking your live e-mails while we've been on air. We have one just in from Gary, Belfast: Do you think the Government honestly believes that this will encourage people to come to higher education?


    Mandy Telford:

    That's a very difficult question to answer Gary, a very difficult question to answer. We've been lobbying the Government hard, we've been campaigning hard to tell them what they're doing at the moment doesn't work and try to make them see that they have this agenda to widen access and encourage more people into university.

    We've been trying to prove to the Government that hardship and debt are one of the biggest reasons that students don't go to university. In fact the Government's own watchdog says that debt and hardship are the biggest reason that students drop out of the education. So it's something that they have to fix soon.


    Gary Eason:

    Not everybody is convinced by that. We had an e-mail earlier from Ann Nee in Margate: If university fees are to be paid after graduation then surely the question of payment by students from poor backgrounds becomes irrelevant? All post-graduates will be taxed on their income and the payment will not be based on parental income but on personal income.

    It's a fairer way to do it surely?


    Mandy Telford:

    But that's almost a graduate tax argument where all graduates therefore pay a tax forever and that will go back into the system. The NUS believes that if you leave university and you do get a well-paid job - not everybody does. I did primary school teaching and teachers notoriously don't have a very high pay. If you do get a well-paid job then you will be paying higher taxes anyway through the taxation system going back into society. A graduate tax would just hit the poorest, the hardest.


    Gary Eason:

    Mustafa Arif, London: Why should students at top universities have to pay top-up fees to subsidise those at mediocre trumped-up former polys? Surely government money would be more effectively spent on institutions that genuinely uphold academic standards rather than on Mickey-Mouse "universities"?

    A kind of way of saying, not too many students but have we got too many universities?


    Mandy Telford:

    I don't there is such a thing as a Mickey-Mouse university in this country. We've got universities doing different things with different courses - vocational and non-vocational - all very important to education in this society and people need these skills in our society and they're all as useful as each other.

    I'd agree with him in a way that people shouldn't have to pay top-up fees at all. People should be able to go to the university they want because they want to study that course.


    Gary Eason:

    Sophie, Austria: When are EU students supposed to pay the fees? If I had to pay the fees beforehand, it would certainly deter me from studying in the UK.


    Mandy Telford:

    This legislation, if the Government does it, will only apply to home students. So as far as international students are concerned, they won't be affected I'd imagine - they'll have to pay their fees upfront. Because if we believe what the leaks are saying, this money will be paid back through the income tax system and obviously that will only be for home students.


    Gary Eason:

    Another live e-mail just in from Mark Johnson, Liverpool: How will the "bill" be paid? Will it be through the PAYE system or some other system?


    Mandy Telford:

    We don't know. All we've got at the moment is leaks from somewhere. We don't actually know what's actually going to be in the White Paper with green tinges.


    Gary Eason:

    If they do bring in higher fees, what would be the best and fairest way to do it?


    Mandy Telford:

    I think they're talking about doing it through the income tax system which I think would actually be very confusing. I think the simplest way to do it would be to add it onto the student loans company because they've got a system that's running already and knows when to cut off once you've paid your full loan back.


    Gary Eason:

    A issue we haven't addressed yet - it didn't arise in the e-mails - that's the question of how the universities benefit from higher fees if they're paid after graduation arises because you'd have a gap of some years before the money started flowing in. How do you think that should be addressed?


    Mandy Telford:

    It is an interesting question because of course when tuition fees were introduced no university saw a penny of that money because the Government just cut their budget by the amount of the tuition fees. So they didn't actually get any more money.


    Gary Eason:

    But now it's a significant sum for them isn't it?


    Mandy Telford:

    Absolutely. If the Government are saying you can charge your students 4,000 a year but you only get after this money is going directly to universities - we'll have an issue with that as well because it's only going to be certain universities that will get that money. Therefore, those universities are going to be the richest. We don't believe that's fair and equitable in education and how they plug the gap between now and then - that's the age-old question really.


    Gary Eason:

    Neil Morrell, Croydon: Seven years ago, the NUS thought that paying for education was the future. Now the NUS seems have had a U-turn. I would like to know what has brought about the change.


    Mandy Telford:

    The NUS is very democratic. We have a big NUS conference which I think you've attended and that's where our policy is set. Our policy is quite clear that we think tuition fees are bad and should be abolish. We think grants should come back. We fighting against top-up fees and a graduate tax because we believe in access for all into education and hardship and debt shouldn't play a part in that.


    Gary Eason:

    Chris Scott, London: Four years ago the NUS acquiesced without a struggle to the introduction of tuition fees, going so far as to criticise those who protested against their introduction. Why complain now?

    Do you give the same answer?


    Mandy Telford:

    Absolutely. I don't think the NUS did acquiesce into tuition fees. But the point is that we are fighting hard against tuition fees and we fought hard in Scotland and in Wales - they have made big gains on the student funding system. We're trying now in Westminster and I think it is Westminster's turn to listen to us.


    Gary Eason:

    Do you think there's been a sea change in students' attitudes? We went through a phase - it harks back to a golden age we all know never existed - but people say that students used to be more militant and then they became much more pragmatic, they were worried about getting jobs and so on. Do you think that's changed and they're getting more militant again?


    Mandy Telford:

    That's an unusual question for me to be asked - it's normally the other way around. Students are different now than they used to be in the golden age. They are different ages, they come from different backgrounds, different cultures. The majority of them are working their way through university. They don't have an awful lot of time to go on demonstrations and to get involved in things.

    But our campaign this year has seen a huge number of students get involved. Our demonstration in November was one of the biggest we've seen in decades. I think it is the issue of top-up fees that has actually galvanised these students into action and got them out campaigning with us.


    Gary Eason:

    Neil Wills, Oakham, England: Why do you feel that students should have their views considered when few of them are in a position to have contributed financially to the economy?


    Mandy Telford:

    Well because students are part of society and they are the future of our society in the sense that they will go on and be the doctors, nurses, teachers and the businessmen of society so obviously their views should be considered.


    Gary Eason:

    Jacob, London, UK: Other unions can strike, why not have a mass walk out? Show Mr Blair what students think of him.


    Mandy Telford:

    We have had that before in the past. We had a shutdown of higher education before when I was a student and it's one of many tactics that we like to use. But we like to use lots of different things and lots of different campaigning tactics and this year is really quite jam-packed full. But we will be having a meeting within 72 hours of the paper coming out for student officers and students to come to in London for them to feed back to us what we should do next. If that's something they want then that's what we can do.


    Gary Eason:

    A final question from Simon Richardson, UK: In view of the burden of debt and lack of job advantage facing most new graduates, would you recommend to school leavers and their parents that they go to University? Is it worth it?


    Mandy Telford:

    Yes. I think going to university is worth it. It does increase your job prospects. It increases you personally as a person - going to university changed my life - and I would encourage everybody to go to either college or university whatever is best for them.


    Gary Eason:

    Well I'm afraid we've run out of time. My thanks to our guest, Mandy Telford and to you for all your questions - I'm sorry we couldn't get through more of them. Until the next time, from me,Gary Eason, goodbye.

  • See also:

    16 Jan 03 | Education
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