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Meg Munn MP - Sheffield Heeley's voice in Parliament | Welcome
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Meg Munn on Higher Education White Paper

Thursday, January 23, 2003

Article for Sheffield Telegraph, January 24th 2003


The White Paper on Education announced this week contains a range of proposals that will have a significant impact on higher education. My concern was whether the changes would encourage more young people to go to university and benefit from their time there. An important start in the White Paper is the commitment to introduce more vocational subjects at degree level, which will place these on the same footing as academic subjects and recognise their worth.

I welcome the introduction of a grant of £1000 towards living expenses for students from low-income families. This builds on the excellent Education Maintenance Allowance scheme that provides support for young people over the age of 16 staying in education. The pilot schemes in this programme have proved very successful and extending this support should help these same young people to continue with education rather than the immediate financial rewards of a job.

The Government has listened to students on tuition fees. Although less than half of all students are liable to pay, the Government has accepted that payment after graduation is fairer. Students" contribution to their tuition will only be made when they have a job and an income. Equally encouraging is raising the threshold from £10,000 to £15,000, which is when students will start repaying loans. The news that there will be a nil percent interest rate on all student loans will reassure those who are concerned about student debt.

The scare stories of top up fees of £10,000 - £15,000 a year have proved to be just that - scare stories. A cap of £3,000 will keep fees to levels that a graduate can afford to pay back while ensuring that they do contribute some of the extra money that is needed. Under the new system over 40% of students won"t pay the first £1,100, which is the current tuition fee, and many others will only pay part of it. This makes the maximum increase £1,900. The ability to charge an additional fee will not come in before 2006 and the maximum level of £3,000 will only be allowed to rise by inflation for the following 5 years. This will reassure students concerned at possible future fees increase.

Clearly, allowing universities to charge different amounts up to the cap will create a market between them. Universities in close proximity, offering similar courses, may well find themselves competing for students. Sheffield University and Sheffield Hallam University will be in this position for some courses. Such competition may be to the benefit of students, but could make it more difficult for universities seeking to maintain adequate funding levels.

There has been concern that elite universities will charge more and therefore keep out poorer students. The White Paper seeks to tackle this in two ways. The introduction of an access regulator will ensure that universities charging higher fees will have to demonstrate that they are attracting more students from poorer backgrounds. The second method is by keeping the first part of the tuition fee means tested and by providing the grant of £1000 to students from poorer backgrounds which could be used either for fees or living costs.

There is no doubt that we are asking young people to take on a higher level of debt than has been the case in the past. However when set against increased lifetime earnings for graduates and higher thresholds before paying back begins, a university education is still a very good financial investment. The numbers of young people going to university has continued to rise despite concerns about loans.

This White Paper is a balancing act and deals with many difficult issues. It will not be popular with everyone, but I think it sets out a way that more young people will benefit from university. Sheffield will gain from having bigger, better-funded universities and more students benefiting from the excellent courses on offer.

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