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Home > Culture and Society

Top-up fees: foward planning to rival the railways

25 January 2004

Top-up fees now look set to become a reality, after a week or so of the government demonstrating its usual willingness to press on with legislation that is deeply unpopular and not properly thought-out.

(What next? Congestion to be solved by issuing motorists with vouchers that can be redeemed for gyrocopters? The shortage of body armour for soldiers to be solved by giving them cigarette cases to deflect the bullet, like in films? Hospital waiting lists to be cut with a Logan's Run-style 'carousel'...?)

Last week Tony Blair gave a press conference at which he proudly proclaimed that a typical graduate will repay only 9 a week on a 20,000 income. The sums will be linked to inflation, but no interest will be paid. So, the student who owes 9,000 (three years of paying 3,000 fees) can repay a modest amount over 19 years while pocketing something slightly higher than the average wage. However, students will have to repay the debt as soon as they're earning 15,000 pa.

Sounds reasonable, no? Well, no, not really. Since 1998, when maintenance grants were abolished, students have paid a fixed-rate, means tested 1,125 fee every year. If your parents earn less than 21,500 you pay no fees, under 32,000 you get some reduction. Students now take out loans to cover their fees and living expenses, paid back once they earn more than 10,000.

Despite presenting top-up fees in terms of 9 a week, the bottom line is simple: the average student will see a substantial hike in what they are expected to stump up themselves. (And the system will be hideously complicated.)

Mercifully, they won't have to pay interest on their top-up fee payments, but it's yet another debt hanging round your neck when you leave university - and plenty of students are already leaving university with 20,000 debts. (One estimate is that by 2010 students could average 30,000 in debts).

Is this really what you want when you leave university? Especially if you're working in a fairly badly paid job? And it's all the more worrying when the top-up fees could be raised in the near future: top-up fees could be increased after 2009 under the present plans. In the longer term, it's not hard to see university fees skyrocketing - universities have already shown themselves to be willing to do anything that will generate income, whether it's setting up conference facilities or taking overseas students who pay the full cost of their course.

Curiously, the nearest comparison to the top-up fees muddle that we can think of is the privatised rail network. The restructuring of the rail network goes back several governments to the days of Thatcher. Over 20 years later, and after reorganisation after reorganisation, the railways are still stuffed, despite all the promises that privatisation was the solution to their many problems. There have probably been hundreds of initiatives designed to make the privatised rail networks work properly, none of which has been particularly successful. (In fact, current thinking is that centralised management of the railways - like there was during British Rail - was the best way to run them all along).

It's not hard to see university education going the same way, with the same sort of gradual erosion of the existing system followed by frenzied tinkering. Students will have to pay more and more toward their education until it becomes genuinely elitist. And then what? More piecemeal attempts to sort it out, probably.

Maybe a scheme to fund scholarships for poor students by making wealthy students pay for the answers to their final exams? It's as good a 'solution' as anything that's being proposed at the moment...

Comment on this article: letters@thefridaything.co.uk

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