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Last Updated: Thursday, 8 January, 2004, 00:40 GMT
Fees message lost on teenagers
By Sean Coughlan
BBC News Online education staff

The battle over tuition fees is sharply dividing politicians - but for the youngsters who could have to pay the higher fees in two years, it is not so much contentious as plain confusing.

Sanya, Kathryn
These Hackney pupils could be in the first year to pay higher fees

While there are claims and counter-claims over whether raising fees will deter university applicants - young people themselves are more likely to be trying to work out what it all means.

Sanya John-Adegbola is a 16-year-old pupil at Stoke Newington School in Hackney, east London, and if he achieves his ambition of going to university he will be in the first year of students to pay the proposed higher fees.

Bright and ambitious, and trying to follow the political debate about fees which will directly affect him - he says that the government's plans have been poorly explained, so that few young people are clear about when and how much they will have to pay.

No excuses

Even the central point of the government's reforms, that students will no longer have to pay in advance for university courses, does not seem to have registered.

Sanya says that higher fees will not deter applicants to university

But Sanya, and his fellow pupil Kathryn Hargreaves are both unconvinced by claims that higher fees will deter students who want to go to university.

These pupils, at an inner-city state school in one of the country's most deprived boroughs, both argue strongly that if young people want to go to university, they will not be put off by the cost.

"It might sound harsh, but some people are looking for excuses not to go to university. If you really are determined, you'll find a way," says Sanya.

Kathryn Hargreaves, also aged 16, says that she is unlikely to be influenced by a fear of higher fees - as going to university is a good investment in the long run.

These youngsters make a clear connection between getting to university and going on to higher paid jobs - and they seem in no doubt that dropping out of education is short-sighted.

Whatever the principles being debated in parliament, these youngsters have made their own hard-nosed calculations that going to university will be in their own self-interest, regardless of higher costs.

"If it's going to mean a better job, is it really that bad?" says Kathryn.

Small print

They also do not recognise fears that variable fees will mean poorer students choosing the cheapest courses - saying that students will still pursue what they most want to study.

Kathryn says university will be a worthwhile investment for the future

But how much do these teenagers think they will have to pay under the government's proposals?

They are far from clear about distinctions between student loans and university fees - but they think it could be about 10,000 per year or more, rather than the 3,000 tuition fees under proposal.

But the lack of certainty about repayment makes them suspicious of how much it will really cost.

"It almost feels like they're trying to trap us into something, there's too much small print. It's confusing and it feels sneaky," Sanya says.

The prospect of students re-paying fees only after they have left university and begun earning a decent income appeals to both Sanya and Kathryn.

They both saw repayment after graduation as fairer than charges before entering university - and Kathryn was unconcerned at long-term repayments.

"It'll be like paying your electricity bill or paying tax. By then, paying for somewhere to live could be a bigger problem than paying back fees," she says.

Looming debts

But Sanya was worried about the overall level of debt that he would face after university - when fee repayments were added to repayments for loans.

"I'll have to pay it, but it could feel like something looming over you, and if the debt is greater it will feel like more of a threat."

He would prefer a system where university was free - and he says that the concept of charging students is part of a commercialised culture, where everything has a price tag.

But both teenagers, who had not even started school when old-style grants were abolished, are pragmatic about the prospects of having to pay - seeing university as an attractive next step after school which will be to their advantage in later life.

They are also aiming high - and do not expect to be held back because they are at an inner-city school.

Kathryn attends a maths club, where she says meeting an academic from Cambridge University has encouraged her to think about applying to study there.

The BBC's James Westhead
"Most universities are pleased with the proposals"

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19 Dec 03  |  Education

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