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Last Updated: Saturday, 13 September, 2003, 13:30 GMT 14:30 UK
Fees worry parents - and ministers
By Mike Baker
BBC education correspondent

Mike Baker

It is back to university time for students over the next couple of weeks.

"Freshers" will be worrying about how to find their way to lecture theatres while second and third years (who no longer worry about such things) are more likely to be concerned about their mushrooming debts.

Current undergraduates may be relieved that they will escape the proposed introduction of "top-up fees" but anyone under 16 (or their parents) should be watching closely when the Queen sets out the coming year's legislation this autumn.

The bill permitting higher fees will be one of the big political battlegrounds of the parliamentary year.

Revolting MPs

This week, getting in ahead of the students, it was the university vice-chancellors' turn to squeeze into the lecture theatre and take notes as Higher Education Minister Alan Johnson addressed them at their national conference, at Warwick University.

The vice-chancellors have many concerns about the forthcoming university reforms. But, judging by their questions to ministers, their real concerns are not so much over fees (which by and large they support) as about the funding of research and "modernisation" of lecturers' pay.

In the political and media arena, by contrast, only one issue seems to matter: will the government's plans for variable tuition fees be scuppered by a backbenchers' revolt?

Ministers are certainly nervous. When the parliamentary bill gets its main debate in the commons, in late November or early December, the extent of Labour MPs' rebellion may depend as much on the prevailing political climate (post-Hutton and post-party conference) as on the measures within it.

Parental pressure

While many Labour MPs simply object on principle to charging higher fees to students, it seems likely others, especially those in marginal constituencies, will worry as much about the views of anxious middle-class parents.

Almost all of those I asked about how they were coping with the additional burden admitted that it was their parents who were paying
For the most part the talk from the rebels is about the effect on students from the poorest homes. They worry that the prospect of higher debts will deter them from going to university.

But in reality, the political pressure is not coming from the parents of poorer students. After all, neither these parents nor their children will be paying any tuition fees at all until after the children have graduated and are earning a reasonable salary.

Instead one gets the impression that the pressure is coming from middle-class parents who are already digging deep to fund their children through university and who fear they cannot afford to pay for higher fees at the better universities.

The logical response to these concerns is to point out that no parent, however wealthy, should have to pay fees.

Unlike now, if these plans go ahead there will be no up-front fees payable at all. Payment comes from the graduates once they are earning above a certain level.

Who pays?

So why are they so worried? In part, of course, they are concerned about their children being saddled with debt. But there is also a strong middle-class tradition of parents paying the costs of their children's university education.

I recall visiting Stirling University at the start of term when the 1,000 tuition fee was first introduced. Almost all of those I asked about how they were coping with the additional burden admitted that it was their parents who were paying the fees.

But under the proposed "post-study, income-contingent, variable fee scheme" (it's not quite as snappy as "top-up fees", is it?) there will be nothing for parents to pay while their children are at university. So they could be better off.

But there is a big difference here between the theory and the practice of who pays fees. It is this difference which poses the big political risks to the government.

For as long as parents continue to assume they will pick up the eventual bill, many are understandably horrified by potential fees of 3,000 a year.

Fee remission

These are the very voters whom Labour MPs fear will desert them at the next election.

Yet, paradoxically, most of the calls from Labour MPs for government concessions have been based on providing more help to students from poorer homes.

There is some proposed help for the student from a poorer home (even though he or she may go on to become a very high-earning graduate). There will be a grant of up to 1,000 and the first 1,125 of fees (at the current rate) is waived.

When he was pressed to increase this financial assistance, Mr Johnson told vice-chancellors the government could not afford to increase the proposed 1,000 grant. He did however hint at other help for poorer students.

In particular, he said ministers were agonising over the problem of the "gap" between what the poorest students have to pay now and the maximum they might pay under the new system.

Troublesome gap

It is a complicated issue but it is worth a closer look as it shows the difficulties inherent in any changes to funding arrangements. At present, poorer students pay no fees at all. Under current proposals they would have to pay all but the first 1,125.

So a student from a poor background who attends a university course which charges the maximum 3,000 could be 1,875 worse off.

Even if they receive the full 1,000 grant, that still leaves a gap of 875. Ministers are trying to find ways of bridging that gap in an affordable way.

It is hard to see how the government can turn back or even make anything other than minor concessions
Simply increasing the grant would be a blunt instrument as it would offer help to all poorer students irrespective of the cost of the course on which they were enrolled.

As Alan Johnson put it, this problem is proving so tricky that ministers are "wrapping wet towels" around their heads.

A real difficulty for the government is that it is now committed to paying the new grants from the moment students start university, but they will not get any of the additional fees income until after they have graduated. In short, it will be some years before the Treasury starts to benefit from these changes.

This is why there is so little room for manoeuvre. It is also why the proposal of reducing the maximum fee level to 2,000 is not acceptable to ministers.

So, the parliamentary battle will be a tough one. There is a lot at stake as the universities insist higher fees are essential to fund expansion.

It is hard to see how the government can turn back or even make anything other than minor concessions.

Higher fees are a potentially unpopular measure with grave risks for Labour Party solidarity and for electoral backlash.

It is hard to think of another piece of recent educational policy which carries such high risks of failure for this government.

We welcome your comments at educationnews@bbc.co.uk although we cannot always answer individual e-mails.


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