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From The Socialist newspaper, 17 January 2004

Top-Up Fees - Your Questions Answered

Clare James, national coordinator of ISR, looks at what top-up fees will really mean for students and explains why we should organise to stop them.

What do students pay at the moment?

In 1997 New Labour announced the introduction of tuition fees and the abolition of the student grant.

The annual tuition fee is currently 1,125 per student. Some students with low parental income get this fee, or a proportion of it, paid for by their local education authority.

Due to the lack of a living grant many students have to take out loans to survive and many have to take part-time work to get through the living and studying costs of university. One in five students drop out of their courses mainly due to financial hardship. Even now some students are leaving university with debts of 15,000.

Tuition fees and abolishing the student grant were an attack on the right to a free education for all. By introducing tuition fees they have tried to get people 'used' to the idea of paying for education individually rather than society providing for everyone. And they have opened the doors for further cuts, commercialisation and privatisation of education.

What are top-up fees?

The government is proposing that the current tuition fee, which is paid upfront at the beginning of each academic year, is abolished in 2006. This will be replaced by a 'top-up' fee of up to 3,000 a year. This fee and any loans which students take out during their course will be paid back in a form of graduation tax by graduates at a rate of 9% of earnings once they are earning over 15,000 a year.

This would mean graduates ending up paying a greater proportion of their income in tax than is paid by millionaires! There will be a cap on top-up fees of 3,000. But it could be as soon as 2010 that universities get away with charging even more.

The government don't call these top-up fees, they refer to them as 'differential fees' because they want to allow universities to vary the fees depending on the university and the course.

Why are many people against this?

This is yet another attack on the right to a free quality education for all. Although the government is saying that the top-up fee could be anything from 0 - 3,000 there is no indication that any university will charge nothing.

The government has already estimated that at least three quarters of universities will charge the full 3,000. The top universities such as Cambridge and Oxford will be able to charge the full 3,000 because the rich who dominate these universities will always be able to pay.

Underfunded universities with poorer students will be forced to either charge the full 3,000 to try and make ends meet, thereby risking losing students who are put off going. Or, if they charge less than 3,000, they may be seen as offering only 'cheap' courses. For poorer students and universities top-up fees is a no-win situation.

But the poorest students won't have to pay the top-up fees and may even get a grant?

Due to the huge anger which exists among many people across the country against tuition fees the government has been forced to introduce a small grant for the poorest students from September 2004. This will be up to 1,000 a year for students whose family income is less than 15,200. All those with a family income between 15,200 and 21,185 will get a partial grant.

This is a step forward - but is nowhere near what is needed to ensure working class students can survive at university.

From 2006 the poorest students will get up to 3,000 of help a year made up of:

So what is wrong with that?

This in effect will only pay for the 3,000 top-up fees most universities will charge. So although the poorest students won't have to pay back this fee, the cost of living and studying will mean that the poorest students will have to take out the biggest loans to try and survive. This will still put many working class young people off going to university.

Also there will be many students who won't qualify for the grants, have families who don't have enough money to live on themselves, and therefore will not be able to get family help to go to university.

The bursary of up to 300 from the university is also unfair. Again, universities dominated by rich students won't have to pay out many bursaries as most of their students won't qualify. But universities such as the University of East London will have around 44% of students who are poor enough to qualify for the maximum support.

If this system is introduced it is clear that it will not help poorer students go to university. Students will still be left with huge debts to pay back and this will continue to put many young people off.

Richard Sykes, Rector of Imperial College, London, has said that he should be allowed to charge 10,000 or even 15,000 a year for courses as this would more closely reflect the cost and market value of a degree at his university. This could be the future for students is the principle of top-up fees goes through.

What can we do?

International Socialist Resistance (ISR) has called a school and college action day, of strikes and protests, on the day Parliament votes on the top-up fees Bill. We need to make it clear to the government that the campaign against fees and for a living grant will continue to grow and we will fight for as long as necessary.

Everyone should have the right to a properly funded education throughout their lives. Yet we are told by MPs such as Blair and Clarke (who didn't have to pay tuition fees!) that there isn't enough money for this! But Britain is the fourth richest country in the world - this doesn't add up.

Over 5 billion of public money has already been spent on the war and occupation of Iraq. Big business have had huge tax cuts since new Labour came to power. It's clear that there is plenty of money to provide a quality education for all but it is a question of where our money is spent.

We say that if this system can't afford to provide us with a decent education, pay us living wages, offer affordable homes or give young people a decent future then we can't afford this system. We are fighting for a socialist society based on need and not profit which can meet the needs of everyone.

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In The Socialist 17 January 2004:

Stop Top-Up Fees

Top-Up Fees - Your Questions Answered

Top-Up Fees - The Beginning Of The End For Blair?

"Don't let money mean more than minds."

Stop top-up fees Action Day

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