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Last Updated: Tuesday, 30 September, 2003, 08:01 GMT 09:01 UK
Tuition fees dog Labour
By Sean Coughlan
BBC News Online education staff

When Education Secretary Charles Clarke speaks at the Labour party conference in Bournemouth on Tuesday, tuition fees will remain the cloud anchored over his seafront horizon.

Since tuition fees were launched in 1997, student funding has been a thorn in Labour's side

Dividing the party, putting off young people, threatening the middle classes, appearing as the party that pushes students into debt - the issue of student finance has continued to be bad news for the Labour leadership.

But what is it that has set the backbenchers grumbling? And how will the government manage to sell the message that tuition fees is about opening doors to higher education, rather than slamming down the shutters?

Tuition fees are intended to help fill the huge funding hole in higher education - estimated by universities at 10 billion. What makes the extra funding even more necessary, say the universities, is the further expansion of university places.

At present, about 43% of young people go to university - and by the end of the decade, the government wants that figure to be at least 50%.

More places will require more money - and the government argues that because students benefit from higher education, they should make a personal contribution.

The old funding system, without fees and with grants, was based on only a relatively few youngsters going into higher education - and the government argues that when a majority of people enter university, that individual contributions are inescapable.

Charles Clarke
Charles Clarke faces tuition fees critics inside and outside his party

The figure proposed for this contribution is the 3,000 maximum for tuition fees, which universities could charge students each year. This would be on top of student loans for living costs and accommodation.

There are promises of grants and subsidies for the less well-off. But there have been deep misgivings about the impact of such a bill and fears that they could deter the very youngsters from poorer backgrounds that universities are being urged to attract.

Deferred fees

At this stage in the fees discussion, the government will leap to make a point that it says is too often overlooked: that no students will pay fees while at university, they are deferred until the students have graduated and have crossed an earnings threshold.

When this end to "up-front" payments was announced for Scottish universities, there were claims that this was a great breakthrough for students, removing the psychological barrier of having to pay at the point of entry.

But scrapping up-front fees for students at universities south of the border has failed to make such a positive impression - and the government will be asking questions about how the intended message has got so conspicuously lost.

Universities are broadly supportive of tuition fees, arguing that they are the least-worst option for getting more money into higher education.

But an unlikely coalition of students, left-wing Labour rebels, the Liberal Democrats and the Conservative Party have all lined up to throw rocks at the concept of tuition fees.

These have all adopted a clear position against fees - albeit with different intended outcomes - and their uncluttered opposition can seem more straightforward than the rather convoluted balancing act the government is trying to perform.

Free market

And the government's attempt at a compromise - higher fees, but paid after graduation - has struggled to soothe the nerves even of its own backbench MPs, who fear that parents will be less than impressed with even more debts for their children when they leave university.

A de-briefing of Labour MPs after the last general election found that student debt was a big issue on the doorsteps - affecting more families as more students go to university.

Further complicating matters have been suggestions that there could be even more of a free market free-for-all, with universities allowed to charge a much wider range of fees, on a model much closer to the system in the United States.

And this has raised even more questions about whether the tuition fees system will mean students considering courses on price - "ability to pay, rather than ability to learn".

In the forthcoming weeks, opponents of fees will be expecting to see a softening up exercise from government, perhaps with extra financial support to protect the less well-off and more talk of targeted grants.

But with the threat of further student protests and a backbench rebellion, this seaside show seems set to run and run.

Tuition fees 'justified by earnings'
21 May 03  |  Education


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