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2010-10-14 - 23:30:00 - by AlisonW - Topic: UK-Politics: |

There has been much discussion about university fees and the recent Browne report proposing that the present cap should be removed (and, by-the-by, once they increase by a particular amount then a substantial proportion would be paid to the government as tax).

I have been a full-time student twice. The first time around, at Imperial College, was so long ago that the tuition component was fully covered and a maintenance grant was available to all. In my case the maintenance part was reduced because of my parent's earnings but, thankfully, they gave me the difference. In order to have some spending money I worked each summer and took a part-time job during each term. I left college with a small overdraft.

Twenty-five years later, for my second time I studied with the Open University's Business School, where I had to pay the full tuition costs up front – some £10,000 or so. There were no grants, and I had to cover my own living costs.

The world had massively changed between those eras though; In the 1970s there was no expectation that lots of people would go to university; there was an understanding that undergraduate study was related to academic capability, to educate 'the best that schools turn out'. Others would go to a polytechnic, into on-the-job training, or an apprenticeship.

Now, it seems, that every schoolgirl and boy expects to go to university, no matter that they might not be capable of studying in that manner (many universities complain that new arrivals do not have the basic skills they used to expect) or, indeed, intend to study a course which is actually meaningful for study at 'university' level. Like school sports the race to find the best has become a non-competitive 'let everyone win'. It has become a rate of passage for all rather than a preparation for later life, and no longer benefits the country as it did in the past. Instead of targeting education to those who might make the best use of it we appear to be using some sort of scatter gun, often missing the target yet destroying the supporting structure.

So then, about those fees. Post-course student fees were, of course, first introduced by the Labour party under Tony Blair and, like income tax, now appear to be here to stay. The same Tony Blair who said he wanted everyone to go to university who wanted to. Not – I would suggest – because it would be better for the country, but because it gave the appearance of doing something about the poor state of tertiary education. And, of course, it would also delay the anticipated increase in the unemployment rate.

People seem to have little problem with purchasing a home with a loan. There is even a special name for that type of loan – a mortgage. To get this loan they have to agree to pay it back over an extended period, start those payments immediately, and agree to make them every month no matter what their income or change of personal circumstances. Yet there seems to be no reduction in the desire for people to take out mortgages.

And just as a home is an investment for your future so, I would argue, is a good education. And unlike the repayment demands for a mortgage that for a university degree is only repayable when you are earning above a particular income and, indeed, stops if you are not working.

The dropout rate at universities now is massively higher than it ever was in the past. Many students are failing to reach the end of their courses, let alone pass their exams and get their desired qualifications. That rising cost needs to be covered somehow.

There are three options to pay for higher education if one rules out paying for everything up front.

• Fully covered by the government - all taxpayers pay for those who go
• a 'Graduate tax' - all graduates pay a higher income tax no matter how their own education background or income level
• Student fees - paid by those who benefit directly and only after the event.

Just as I noted previously about how having children should be a cost on those responsible, so I feel that student fees should rightly be charged on those who benefit and who made the choice to go onto further education.

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