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Last Updated: Saturday, 31 January, 2004, 02:16 GMT
What about middle income students?
By Mike Baker
BBC education correspondent

Mike Baker graphic
Five votes: that was the size of the government's majority for its Higher Education Bill.

It should, perhaps, have been a shock to ministers. In fact, it was a huge relief.

The National Union of Students, the Labour rebels and the opposition parties have all vowed to continue the fight against variable fees.

But in truth there can be little doubt the bill will now become law by the end of July.

There may be some minor changes as it wends its way through the rest of the parliamentary process; but not many and nothing major.

However there is one very big obstacle still to be overcome before variable fees can begin in Autumn 2006: the next general election.

Shift of focus

General elections are not usually decided on a single issue. The next one is unlikely to be any exception.

There will be a substantial number of young people from middle income homes who will feel they are losing out
However, student finance and university funding will be bigger election issues than ever before.

I think we may also see a change in the nature of the debate. Until now the focus has been on the impact on students from the poorest homes: would they be deterred from going to the best universities - or to university at all - by higher fees?

But the concessions that have been won from the government have gone some of the way towards alleviating these fears.

Full-time students from the poorest homes will be eligible for support of up to 2,700 a year from 2006. On top of this there will be university bursaries worth a minimum of 300 at institutions which charge the full 3,000 fee.

In short, compared with the present system, the poorest students will be about 1,500 a year better off while they are studying.

If they get into one of the elite universities offering bursaries of up to 4,000 a year the benefits will be greater still. A few might have grants and bursaries totalling 6,700.

No support

In those circumstances they would probably have no need of the student loan for living costs so would graduate with only their fees to pay.

At 9,000 for a three-year course this may seem a large sum but it is less than most students end up owing now.

Of course, all this financial help is means tested. While the government estimates about 30% of students will be eligible for the full grant, anyone whose parents earn over 32,000 will get nothing.

These students will get no grant, no bursary, but will have to pay the full maximum fee of 3,000 a year.

Unless their parents help them out they will have to rely on the student loan to cover their living costs.

Typically they will graduate with debts of around 9,000 in fees and 12,000 in student loans, a total of 21,000.

Debts and taxes

Yet these graduates from middle income homes may enter modestly paid public sector careers.

Graduates from the poorest homes - who will emerge with much smaller debts - may enter high-flying, well paid jobs.

How will the graduate from the middle class home feel about not only paying off higher debts but also paying taxes to subsidise the next generation of students from poorer homes?

Some may be altruistic and think it is perfectly fair that the taxpayer should do more to support students from poorer homes.

Others might argue that at 18 all young people should be treated as independent adults.

Either way, there will be a substantial number of young people from middle income homes who will feel they are losing out by paying higher fees which will, in part, subsidise bursaries for their fellow students.

Helping children

Now, returning to the general election, this could have a significant impact on voting. Many of the young people applying to start university in 2006 will still be 17 and so will not have a vote in a 2005 election. But their parents will.

It could be argued that parents should welcome the shift from up-front fees to post-graduation repayment since they will no longer have to dig into their pockets to help their sons and daughters while they are impoverished students.

They can simply sit back and watch their offspring graduate knowing they will not have to pay a penny in tuition fees until they are earning a salary of 15,000 a year.

But reality suggests that is not what most middle income parents will do. They will still feel they must help their children so they do not have to start their working lives weighed down by debts of 20,000 or more.

These middle income parents may then start to feel hard done by, particularly when compared with parents whose children will get large grants and bursaries.

Will this mean a middle-class backlash against the fees?

Review

Apparently aware of this possibility, the Education Secretary Charles Clarke, told MPs when he opened the crucial Commons debate on Tuesday that he would be commissioning a report next year to examine "the gateways into the professions".

This would look particularly at the position of students who did not qualify for the full 3,000 support package.

He mentioned the support the government already gives - "over 700m" - to help to recruit and retain teachers, doctors and dentists, nurses, midwives, social workers and others.

And he suggested other employers in both the public and private sectors should consider their own schemes to recruit the graduates they needed.

One of the ironies of the debate so far has been that a reform which now promises to redistribute wealth from the better-off to the poor came very close to defeat by Labour's left wing.

As the focus shifts from concerns over the poorest students to a sense of injustice amongst the middle income bracket, might the reforms yet come unstuck at the ballot box?


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




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