Tuition Fees = Student Poverty

THIS WEEK the Queen’s Speech will unveil Blair’s government’s plans to let ‘top’ universities charge controversial “top-up” tuition fees of up to £3,000 a year. That’s nearly treble the current rate of tuition fees.

Ministers are disregarding public opinion, as top-up fees are even less popular than foundation hospitals. A survey commissioned by the AUT university teachers’ union shows that 84% of all adults opposed the scheme.

Blair and Co. are also closing their eyes to new research showing that tuition fees and abolition of grants already hit hardest at the poorest students.

The average debt for students went up two and a half times between 1998-99 and 2002-3 from £3,465 to £8,666, claims a study for the Department for Education (DfES). Outgoings have gone up twice as fast as students’ income since 1998, even though nearly 60% now have part-time jobs, up from 47% five years ago. And it’s students from the worst-off families who suffer most.

Students rich enough not to need state loans owe the least, while the debts of those poor enough to qualify for the full means-tested sum are 44% higher than four years ago. More than half of undergraduates in 2003 will leave with debts of £9,673 or more.

The report says: “Students from lower income backgrounds were more likely to be in debt, and anticipated leaving university with the largest debts… students from the wealthiest backgrounds… anticipated leaving with the lowest debts.”

Undergraduate poverty has grown – 43% of students have poverty incomes. Basic living costs had gone up only 4% over the same period, but mainly because more students were living at home and have also reduced their spending on alcohol by 10% since 1998!

DfES spokesmen claim that: “Someone earning the average graduate starting salary of £18,000 will only repay £5.20 a week, no matter what they owe.” But with debts piling up, students face years of paying back debts, which will be a disincentive for future students. This makes a mockery of government pledges to widen access to higher education.

Young people who choose not to enter higher education gave as their main reason “money worries.” New Labour’s policies – especially top-up fees but even the reintroduction of a maintenance grant (at far too low a level) will do nothing to stop this.