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Meg Munn MP - Sheffield Heeley's voice in Parliament | Welcome
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Funding Higher Education - article for Co-op News October 2003

Thursday, October 23, 2003

Myrtle Springs is one of four secondary schools in my constituency. Under a Labour Government the school has more money, learning mentors are really making a difference and new buildings have improved the learning environment. With a charismatic head, a dedicated senior management team and enthusiastic teachers you would think it had everything going for it. Nevertheless the school languishes well below the Government target for 5 A - C grades at GCSE. The school has better dressed, better fed and better educated pupils arriving in year 7 but as with many schools in deprived inner city areas, few of these pupils will get to university. Study after study shows that at the age of 5 it is possible to predict how well children will do.

It’s a shocking fact that while 70% of children from middle class backgrounds go to university only 15% of those from working class backgrounds will. In my region, South Yorkshire, not much more than 20% of all 18 - 30 year olds go to university compared to the national average of 43%. The Government has a target of 50% - and quite rightly they want to see more students from poorer backgrounds in this figure. This target, along with a population bulge, will cost extra money. The eternal question is - where will this money come from?

The Conservative Party have made much of their new policy of no fees, managing to keep quiet the part about cutting the numbers able to go to university by around 100,000 from the present figure. Many middle-class people may find this policy superficially attractive on the basis they believe their Jenny or John will go. But this policy is really codifying a class based education system where the upper and middle class can go into higher education; the working class don’t even consider it an option.

Others call for general taxation to cover the growth in numbers. General taxation has an important part in the expansion of higher education and plans for the future do mean an increase in the amount of funds. But what was affordable when 10% of an age range went into higher education cannot be presumed to be OK when 50% go. Unless of course you consider that people do want to pay higher taxes.

In these circumstances is it so unreasonable to ask young people who are getting the benefit of that education to contribute? Under the new proposal it will be free at the point of delivery, currently the fee is payable up front. The cost of the fee is loaned to the student at 0% interest, only being up rated for inflation. Only when the graduate is working and earning £15,000 per annum will repayments start. A graduate earning £18,000 will be paying back £5.25 a week. If their earnings fall below £15,000 or they take a career break, payments stop. If their earnings never reach £15,000 nothing is paid back.

There is some concern that variable fees at universities might put off those from poorer backgrounds. This is where the Government policy is at its most progressive. Some of the extra money generated for universities through fees will go straight back into the pockets of poorer students, who will receive bursaries to help with the costs of their education. Charging middle class students more to help poorer students may not be very popular with middle England but it’s the sort of progressive policy that everyone in the party should support.

Fear of debt is a real issue that needs a real solution, but no-one can believe that this accounts for the huge disparity in attendance at university. The real answer lies in making sure that the children, who attend Myrtle Springs and the others like them, get the opportunities to fulfil their potential by us investing in early year’s education. That should be our priority for further public funds, not in subsidising middle class young people who will go to university whatever happens.

Meg Munn MP



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