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Wednesday, 4 December, 2002, 18:49 GMT
Students march against top-ups
Students say top-ups would lead to a two-tier system
Thousands of students from across the UK have marched through London in protest against any plans to increase tuition fees.

They warned that an increase in fees would deter poorer students from going to university.

student demonstration
The NUS says students should not pay for their education
The National Union of Students (NUS), which organised the demonstration in Kennington Park, is calling on the government to rule out higher tuition fees when it publishes its review of higher education next month.

Speaking later in the Commons, Prime Minister Tony Blair said parents would not have to pay thousands of pounds "upfront" for their children's education.

But he repeatedly refused to rule out the idea of extra charges to ease the burden on cash-strapped universities.

The government is said to be considering increased tuition fees (known as top-up fees) and a graduate tax, or a combination of schemes to try to boost funds.

Open in new window : Student protest
Thousands take to the streets

It is thought between 5,000 and 10,000 students joined Wednesday's protest.

Student Hannah Chamock was among the crowd.

She says top-up fees could prevent many people going to university, and "completely contradict" government plans to get more youngsters into higher education.

The status quo is not an option

Tony Blair
Also on the march was Will Straw, the son of Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, and President of the Oxford Student Union.

He also believes top-up fees could deter students from poorer families.

"What we've seen in the four years since the introduction of tuition fees is a rise in student debt to 12,000 over the course of a degree and a subsequent 9.5% fall in applications from lower socio-economic groups," he said.

At Question Time in the Commons, the Prime Minister said universities needed more money and the status quo was not an option.

"We do need to get more money into our university education system," he said.

"It can either come from the taxpayer, it can come from the parent or the student.

"So, it is a difficult problem. We are resolving it and we will publish the conclusions in January."

Mr Blair said changes outlined in the review would increase access to universities.

"It will not mean parents are having to pay upfront thousands in fees," he said.

Hannah Chamock: "Don't bar young people from education"

It is thought Tony Blair is under pressure to abandon the idea of top-up fees because of the danger of a cabinet split and because of warnings that they could become Labour's poll-tax.

In a briefing to journalists shortly before the march, Downing Street officials said there were 'no easy politically palatable options' for the future funding of universities - and that the government would have to 'grasp the nettle' and make 'tough decisions'.

Currently, only half of students pay tuition fees of 1,100 a year because the fees are means-tested.

The government review follows claims by universities that they need billions more each year to improve standards and compete globally.

Tuition fees
Nil if parents' income less than 20,480
Sliding scale up to 1,100 on incomes over 30,502

Top-up fees would allow top universities to charge above the current 1,100 capped rate.

Imperial College London has already passed plans to charge students up to 10,500 if the cap is lifted.

Students are already graduating with average debts of about 12,000, but the government says graduates earn 400,000 more than non-graduates during their working life.

Scottish system

Although the proposals will have no direct impact on universities in Scotland, the Scotland Secretary, Helen Liddell, has publicly voiced opposition to the move.

Students from Scotland would have to pay the fees if they chose to study in England.

William Straw
William Straw: Falling numbers of uni applications from poorer students
Student Hannah Chamock, who attends Liverpool University, said the government's argument did not "stand up".

"It doesn't take into account people that want to go and work in the public sector, or take a career break to have a family for example.

"Even for those students who do end up earning those high wages, students are going to end up paying over 90,000 in income tax over their lifetime anyway, which more than covers the cost of a degree."

The Association of University Teachers (AUT) says everyone involved in higher education is against top-up fees.

The union's Matt Waddup said: "This would create a two-tier system, where the haves would go to elite Ivy League institutions and the have-nots would have to make do with second best.

The BBC's Mike Baker
"The level of protest against top-up fees is growing fast"
Higher Education Minister Margaret Hodge
"I welcome the fact that students are engaging in the debate"

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Analysis: Mike Baker

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04 Dec 02 | Politics
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