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Yorkshire Post article on top-up fees

Tuesday, December 9, 2003

Yorkshire Post article on Tuition Fees


There has been much heat and dust generated as a result of the proposals for variable tuition fees for university students from 2006. There are three important elements in this debate - the importance of the university sector, where the money to fund it comes from and the importance of fairness to individuals and the Yorkshire region.


The university sector is hugely important and every indicator suggests this will continue. A growing slice of wealth creation depends on knowledge and its application and it is one reason why the Government has set a target of 50% of all 18 - 30 years olds going to university. Some have suggested that we do not need so many graduates, this flies in the face of what our international competitors are doing - they know how future prosperity will be created and are preparing for it.


Society has an obligation to pay for this sector and it does. However what was possible when only 8 or 9% of school leavers went to university becomes questionable when over 40% do. There are always pressures on the public purse, early evidence from Sure Start - support for the most disadvantaged children - shows it is beginning to provide real benefits to those who most need it. Should extra money be targeted at disadvantaged children or be provided to university students, who arguably already have some of the greatest advantages?


As university provision expands it is only right that those who will gain the most from this expansion - the graduates - make some financial contribution provided it is in an equitable manner.  The Government proposes that from 2006, entry to university will be free at the point of delivery; up-front fees will be abolished. This will make entry to university open to all who have the necessary qualifications, experience and motivation. In addition, the current proposal is that students from poorer backgrounds will be eligible to receive a maintenance grant of £1,000. Not having to find up-front money coupled with receiving a grant provides an immediate incentive to those from poorer backgrounds.


Under the proposed system graduates would only start to financially contribute when they were earning over £15,000 per annum, which is 50% higher than the level, at which they currently do. As an example, someone earning £18,000 would pay about £5.20 a week which is £270 a year. Under the new system any graduate earning up to £40,000 will be better off than they are now.


It’s at this point that the question of fairness comes into play. Social justice demands that there is equal access for the best and the brightest of our young people irrespective of their social class. 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 South Yorkshire not much more than 20% of all 18 - 30 years go to university compared to a national average of 43%. Both as a Labour politician and someone Yorkshire born and bred, I make no apologies for saying this is wrong and has to be addressed.


Opponents of variable tuition fees claim that people from poorer backgrounds will be put off from going to university because of the fear of debt. This fear is an unproven assertion, but even if it were true no-one can believe that it accounts for the huge disparity in attendance at university. The biggest factor in determining whether young people from low-income groups go to university is educational achievement at 18. Nearly all young people who get 2 or more A-levels go on to higher education, the test is whether we can drive up the numbers of young people from poor backgrounds achieving this level at 18, and studies show that early childhood support is the key. Programmes that help disadvantaged children at an early age will help children achieve at school and thus go on to university - that should be the priority for spending in the education world.



Meg Munn MP


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