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Increased Tuition Fees - What Does it Really Mean for Students?

Monday 13 December 2010, 16:53
By David Heath

David Heath MPThis week parliament will finally debate the future of university tuition fees. We've had plenty of noise on the subject, and sadly many of those who have been most vociferous are the least well informed about what is proposed. One lad, not actually a constituent of mine, wrote to say that if the plans went ahead he would not be able to go to university next year to read dentistry as he had planned. Well, I'm not sure why, given that the new fees system wouldn't affect him at all as a 2011 entry, that even if they did he would not have to pay a penny while a student, and NHS figures say the average pay last year for dentists was £89,062, which might just allow him to keep up the loan repayments.

That is not to say I support tuition fees as a principle. Far from it. Indeed, I am still viscerally against, just as I was when the Labour government introduced them. If we had a majority Liberal Democrat government, I hope we would move back towards full funding, although I accept that would inevitably be on fewer university places than at present. What worked when I was at university, when less than 20% went to university, does not do so when we have nearly 50% entering higher education. But we don't have a Liberal Democrat majority, so we must do the best we can with what we have.

So what is proposed? Firstly, to end the situation whereby 40% of all students, some 200,000 part-time learners each year, pay up-front fees before they study. Like full-time students, their fees will be payable only after graduation. Secondly, future repayments by graduates will be based on ability to pay. The current system sees payments start once graduates earn over £15,000, and everyone pays the same regardless of income. The new proposal is different. The threshold at which repayment starts will rise, from £15,000 to £21,000. Graduates who go into lower paid work will not repay anything unless and until they earn more than £21,000, and then at a rate of 9% of their earnings over £21,000. That means all graduates will pay less per month than under the present system. If a graduate becomes unemployed or takes time out, perhaps to raise a family, then repayments stop, and whatever happens, the loan is written off after thirty years.

Let's take a nurse on a starting salary of £21,000 which rises to £27,000 over 20 years. That nurse will pay an average of £7 per month rather than the £45 per month they face now. Less than a TV licence, and less than they do now. Of course, if you become much better off as a result of your qualification - like the dentistry student - there's a gradual increase, so the lowest paid graduates pay back less in total than they would under the current system and the top earners pay back more. That sounds pretty fair to me.

Then there are the living costs of going to university. For students from families with an income of up to £25,000, the grant for living costs will rise. And for the least well off, there is a new £10 million National Scholarship Programme, to pay the tuition fees for students from the poorest families.

Ah, some will say, but there's no getting away from the fact that tuition fees will go up. And they're right. But the package as a whole is much more progressive than I could have dared to hope. All students will pay less per month than they do now, discrimination against part-time students is put to an end, and the encouragement to would-be students from less well-off backgrounds is enhanced, not reduced. It's far from perfect, but it's an awful lot better than some say, either because they haven't looked at the full deal, or because the true position doesn't suit their arguments.

David Heath


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