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Last Updated: Monday, 3 October 2005, 16:02 GMT 17:02 UK
Rammell's mission to explain fees
By Sean Coughlan
BBC News education reporter

Student advert
The advert shows the "vultures" preying on fears about student debt
Selling the university tuition fee system hasn't been an easy job.

The latest attempt by the Higher Education Minister Bill Rammell will see a publicity offensive spearheaded by television adverts.

These will reassure young people, thinking about applying to university, that they won't have to pay any up-front fees - and the advert shows youngsters shaking off an angst-inducing vulture.

In fact, student funding has been the government's own vulture, casting an awkward shadow since tuition fees were introduced in 1998.

A backbench rebellion almost derailed the latest student funding plans, which will raise the tuition fee upper limit to 3,000 per year.

'Get real'

And if the government has had trouble convincing its own MPs, the student finance reform now faces an even tougher audience.

Bill Rammell
In an ideal world you wouldn't bring in these changes, but we don't live in an ideal world
Bill Rammell, higher education minister

Teenagers. Not just teenagers, but teenagers with suspicious parents.

The government is worried that all the sound and fury over tuition fees will stop young people from hearing the other half of the funding equation - which will mean more financial support for poorer students and replacing up-front fees with repayment after graduation.

Mr Rammell is determined that confusion over funding reform should not be allowed to get in the way of young people getting to university - and he sends the message "study now, pay later".

"I think we have to get real. In an ideal world you wouldn't bring in these changes, but we don't live in an ideal world. To maintain and develop a world class system of higher education would cost the equivalent of 3p or 4p on the standard rate of tax.

"The idea that any government would put tax up by that amount and then spend the money exclusively on higher education is cloud cuckoo land. So we had to make a decision. You either let the system wither on the vine or you do something about it."


He is adamant that the government made the right decision by hiking fees to raise funds for universities - and offsetting the increases with targeted support for poorer students.

Young people should be aiming upwards, urge the adverts

"I make no apology for saying that this student financial support package is redistributive, the most support goes to the students who most need it."

But he fears that a confused message could put off the very people the government wants to encourage - youngsters from families where no one has gone to university before.

"I do have a worry that because of all the controversy surrounding the introduction of variable fees that we won't get the message across to those students and their families that we most need to reach."

Part of the problem for Mr Rammell is that the funding package isn't exactly simple. It's a hybrid of student support, university fundraising and repayment schemes.

Political expediency meant the repayments couldn't be called a tax, but as Mr Rammell observes it's a "graduate repayment system that's as near as damn it to a graduate tax".

Graduate economy

And the support for students is a multi-layered formula of maintenance grants, student loans, fee subsidies and university bursaries. The jargon has added to the confusion. Are they top-up fees, tuition fees or variable fees?

Graduate numbers in the UK are lagging behind other industrialised countries

Such complications are not going to put off young people who are already confident about going to university - but the government wants to widen the range of people entering higher education.

With the UK's industrial competitors pushing ahead in graduate numbers, the government wants at least half of young people to go to university by the end of the decade.

"It's massively in our economic self-interest," he says. For individuals, the arguments for going to university remain irresistible, he says.

"Whatever the challenges, going to university is the best investment you can make in your life."

The task of encouraging more students to stay on for higher education must begin earlier in pupils' school career, he says.

"The biggest hurdle on whether you go to higher education is at 16 and not at 18," he says. If teenagers stay in school or college to take A-levels, most of them will go onto higher education.


But the UK suffers from a high drop-out rate at 16, one of the worst in the industrialised world, and in an attempt to break this pattern, the government has introduced "educational maintenance allowances" (EMAs) which provide cash incentives to stay in education.

The early evidence is showing that EMAs are improving staying on by about 6%, he says, with white working-class boys particularly benefiting.

He also envisages that further education colleges will become a more widespread provider of higher education courses - providing another accessible route.

"The best performing economies and societies are those that believe that you need as many people as possible to be educated to the highest levels," he says.

And he is angered by those who want to limit the numbers allowed to attend university.

"It's based on elitism. They want to preserve what they see as the benefits of higher education for a small group of people.

"It's absolutely the opposite of what is right - from an ethical and a self-interested point out of view, in what's needed by society and the economy."


Nonetheless, widening participation will not mean equal treatment for part-time students.

New universities have complained that many of their students are part-timers - and that the switch to repaying fees after graduation will apply only to full-timers.

Mr Rammell promises an imminent announcement on extra support, but not the full benefits available to full-timers.

"Part time students aren't a uniform group, many of them are comfortably off, many have their fees paid by their employers. Why should we step in and start subsidising employers who are already paying for people to go to higher education?"

If the funding package is a tough sell, with too much jargon getting in the way of the message, then he might look back on his own management experience.

Before becoming an MP, Mr Rammell worked in the same office as Ricky Gervais, the creator of the management icon, David Brent.

"I hesitate to say this, I was his boss," says Mr Rammell. And no, it wasn't based on me, he says.

What the changes mean for students

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