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back to front - a fee too far


Earlier this year the government released the white paper The Future of Higher Education, which proposed that from 2006 institutions will be able to charge fees of up to 3,000 per student. It appears that this three-year run in period has focussed the minds of students, parents and the public at large to stop the fees and to consider how higher education should be funded.

Sunday 26 October will see a National Demonstration in Central London. The demonstration is part of a vigorous campaign, which has been conducted by the National Union of Students and both the higher education teaching unions, the AUT and NATFHE over the summer months - usually a quieter time for all three unions. It is now clear that top-up fees is now heading the list of this government's unpopular proposals with its own parliamentary party.

The NUS has been carefully monitoring the current situation. Since the elimination of grants student debt has increased by a massive 544% and now totals over 5 billion. Parents are now paying more than 500 million every year towards the cost of university. 40% of all students now spend an average of 13 hours a week working, or put another way, work on average nearly two full days a week.

Not surprisingly students point out that working is adversely affecting their studies. Against this backdrop the effect of top up fees will be to move the current average cost of a degree, which incurs nearly 20,000 debt, to a staggering 33,000 by 2010.

Some universities such as Oxford have already seized the opportunity to discuss possibilities to charge fees that go way beyond the proposals in the White Paper. They say this is necessary because increasing numbers of British students are choosing US universities. There is also a trend to study in Scotland, which has already led the British Medical Association to say that fees in England and Wales are affecting the whole of medical education in Britain.

In contrast to the Oxford trend it is clear that many of the new universities are being pressured not to charge maximum fees. They will thus be even worse off by comparison than at present, even though they cater for students most in need of learning support, resulting in even poorer facilities, less pay for staff and generally poorer quality education. Both higher education teaching unions have labelled the White Paper plans as a "recipe for stratification".

By coincidence, the current total student debt is very close to current expenditure on the continuing war in Iraq. The campaign against top up fees is an opportunity to assert different priorities, to identify what skills and level of education a country needs and how that should be funded.

The government's White Paper was called the Future of Higher Education. Interestingly it is has sparked debate on what future we want for this country.