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Meg Munn MP - Sheffield Heeley's voice in Parliament | Welcome
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Meg explains her position on Higher Education funding and top-up fees

Tuesday, January 27, 2004

Dear Constituents

Since the Labour Government came to power in 1997 student numbers have risen with 43% of young people now going to university. I believe this is beneficial not only to those who go but also for society, where knowledge and skills are increasingly important in creating a successful economy. The Government has set a target of 50% of 18 - 30 year olds going to university which I support. I am concerned that young people from poorer backgrounds do not go to university at the same rate as those from better off families. I want to see access to universities widened and at the same time, more young people getting the opportunity to take up places.

Clearly more funding is needed for the extra places in order that the quality of university education is maintained. The Government has put significant additional money into universities and will continue to do so. At the same time students have been required to pay a contribution towards tuition fees on a means tested basis. It is important to say that over 40% of students do not pay anything at all. The proposals in the Government Bill mean that universities that can prove they are widening access to disadvantaged students will be able to charge up to £3000 per year in tuition fees from 2006. Crucially however this will not have to be paid at the time as in the current situation, but when the graduate is earning at least £15,000 a year. It is proposed that this be at a 0% rate of interest with increases only for inflation. The Government has also announced that there will be a 25 year cap meaning that any debt outstanding after 25 years would be written off. This is a further protection for graduates who take low paid jobs or who have career breaks to bring up families or care for elderly or disabled relatives.

Currently many graduates have to borrow money at commercial interest rates to supplement their maintenance loans. The Government has announced that it will be increasing the amount of maintenance loan available ensuring that students can borrow enough money to live on at 0% interest instead of incurring credit card debt. 

Some argue that additional funding for universities should come from general taxation. A significant amount does come from this source. I think it is fair however to ask those who benefit from a university education to contribute something themselves. The alternative is that people who have not benefited, the majority of whom earn less than graduates, have to pay more in taxes.


Another argument is that there should be a graduate tax. What is being proposed is in effect a graduate tax as it is repaid in relation to the level of income earned. However, the difference is that a general graduate tax would continue whereas re-payment of tuition fees and student loans will end when the debt is paid off.

I understand that some of the figures that are being quoted as total debt levels do worry students and those thinking of going to university. The NUS gave evidence to the Education & Skills Select Committee, of which I was a member, and stated that often half the debt is for credit cards. As this is at a high rate of interest this is a matter which concerns me. The Education & Skills Select Committee took the view that loans for students should be sufficient so that they don’t need to rely on commercial credit sources with their high rates of interest.

I am pleased that grants are to be re-introduced for students from poorer backgrounds and that the initial proposal of £1000 for level of grants has now increased to £2700.  All those students will also be eligible of additional financial help of £300 from their university if the course they choose is charging £3000. 

As you are probably aware the Conservatives have recently announced their policy which would be to abolish tuition fees. While this might sound initially attractive the results of this policy mean that fewer young people would get the opportunity to go to university. They will also not put in place any measures to enable poorer students to go to university. We would return to the days when Higher Education was for a few young people predominantly from better off backgrounds.

Finally I think it is important to note that while I believe some people are sceptical when considering university by worries about debt there are other reasons why young people don’t apply. Over 90% of those who get the qualifications for university go to university. It is therefore important to ensure that more young people remain in the education system at the age of 16. The introduction of Educational Maintenance Allowances in some areas has helped more young people stay on. I am pleased that this is going to be extended across the country. I am also pleased that the Government has developed a strategy for 14 - 19 education to help improve staying on rates along with more funding for this age group.

As you will appreciate there is a limit to the amount of money available to invest in public services. If young people are going to get the chance to go to university they need a strong foundation in education. I want to see money invested from an early age - we have two Sure-Start projects in the constituency - I look forward to seeing more. We are getting new schools and must ensure all children are in decent surroundings conducive to learning.  These are competing demands for public money in the education sector. In this situation I think it is reasonable to ask those who have benefited from their university education to contribute when they are earning a reasonable salary.

Meg Munn MP

Photo: Meg sitting behind Charles Clarke, Education Minister, during the HE debate in her role as PPS to the Department for Education and Skills - A Press Association photograph

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