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EDITIONS
 Thursday, 13 September, 2001, 13:11 GMT 14:11 UK
Call for student funding reform
student demo
Fees and loans have proved deeply unpopular
The new president of the organisation representing UK university vice-chancellors has called for an urgent reform of student funding to tackle growing hardship.

In his address to the vice-chancellors' annual conference, Roderick Floud, provost of London Guildhall University, said the present "plethora of bursary schemes" for poorer students should be replaced.

He urged the government to move to "a single, uncomplicated system" of awards for living costs for people from poorer families.

It should be wide enough to ensure that money was no longer a barrier to participation in higher education, he said.

Opportunities for all

Prof Floud said vice-chancellors were increasingly concerned about the issue.

Subsidised loans are available but they are not adequate to sustain a reasonable standard of living

Prof Roderick Floud, Universities UK
They wanted everyone with the potential to benefit from university to get a fair chance to do so.

The introduction of a means-tested contribution to tuition fees, and the replacement of maintenance grants by loans, were said to have been the most electorally unpopular act of the last Labour government.

The Prime Minister, Tony Blair, had recently responded by saying: "It is important that we make sure there are no barriers to people going to university".

But whatever system was used, he had said, would require some contribution from the person going through higher education.

Misunderstandings

"Tuition fees have unhelpfully become shorthand for the whole debate about student finance," Prof Floud said.

"It has led to serious misunderstandings about what students may be required to pay and I fear that it may have deterred some young people from even contemplating higher education."

In a recent survey of young people in London, all those who said they were not considering higher education had no idea that tuition fees were means-tested.

Nor did most people know that the current 1,075 was only about a quarter of the average cost of a full-time undergraduate degree course.

Living costs

But he said: "The real area of concern is not fees but living costs.

"Subsidised loans are available but they are not adequate to sustain a reasonable standard of living.

"The government's plethora of bursary schemes for poorer students suffer from the same problem.

"It is estimated that accumulated student debts averages 12,000 by graduation, and just under half of full-time students had jobs during term time, working about 11 hours in the weeks in which they worked.

"Some of mine, at London Guildhall, are working more than 20 hours per week. The personal investment by students is now very substantial."

Various systems

Complicating matters, there were different systems emerging in different parts of the UK.

Reviews in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland had all highlighted the financial pressures that students faced - particularly those from low income families.

Each review had resulted in some form of additional support being offered or proposed.

The government - with the best of intentions - had introduced a number of student support funds to specific groups in recent years.

"Unfortunately what we have ended up with is a myriad of, frankly, mean and unequal opportunities for individual students to fund their living costs.

"Current systems are also too complicated, too costly for universities to administer and too confusing for students to access," he argued.

Urgent re-think

Universities UK had tended to concentrate on trying to secure adequate funding for the universities' "core functions" of teaching and research.

"But as evidence of student hardship mounts, we must give greater priority to matters that affect the ability of well-qualified students to enter university and complete their courses, and might be damaging our efforts to widen participation."

So it intended to press the government for an urgent re-think on student support.

"We will be calling on government to swap the present bursary schemes for a single, uncomplicated, system of student living support awards for people from low-income families drawn widely enough to ensure that finance is no longer a barrier to participation in higher education."

Under review

"If we really want to encourage new aspiration and attainment levels amongst tomorrow's university students, those now entering their GCSE years, we must signal to them now that they can afford to consider higher education as an option," Prof Floud said.

His intervention comes as Whitehall is reviewing the issue of student funding in light of the unpopularity of government policy during the election.

According to a report in The Independent newspaper, its inquiry is expected to recommend an expanded system of bursaries.

Student loans might be charged at market rates of interest, instead of being subsidised, as recommended by the Institute for Public Policy Research think tank - releasing an estimated 300m.

Cautious welcome

The Association of University Teachers warmly welcomed the commitment by university vice-chancellors to support the reform of student finance.

But it said it was concerned about the threat of increased tuition fees to pay for this policy, and called upon vice-chancellors to rule out further charges on students.

The National Union of Students also called for clarification.

Its national secretary, Ben Monks, said: "We now ask them to guarantee that any increase will not be met by students through the introduction of top-up fees."


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