Tuesday, October 12, 2010

How to pay tuition fees

I have mixed emotions about the proposals today to increase tuition fees to as much as £12,000 a year. On the one hand, it will discourage bright children from poor backgrounds. However, too many people go to university who are unsuited to academic study and this may prompt the Government into looking at ways of encouraging more vocational home-based courses that benefit the students more as well as society.

Getting on for 80 years ago, my grandfather passed the entrance exams to study medicine at Cambridge but was unable to take up the place because his father was a carpenter and could not afford to pay for his upkeep. It was not until 1962 that Local Education Authorities were obliged to pay maintenance grants, an obligation that was abolished in 1997.

While there was a wealthy aunt, she refused to pay for my grandfather to go to university and instead arranged for him to take vocational training in chiropody so that he could work for her business, which made orthopedic instruments, rather than pursue his dream of studying medicine. Perhaps it made financial sense (it certainly benefitted her), but my grandfather missed out on the opportunity.

Sixty years later, I was privileged enough to recive a place at the university, helped by there being no tuition fees and a decent grant. No doubt my parents would have found money to support me if there had been fees, as they did for my little sister, but the assistance of the state meant that there was no question of me following my grandfather's example and turning the place down.

That said, I can see the other side. Universities are underfunded and the state has no more money to give them. It is fair that those who benefit from university pay for some of the cost. It is also fair that those who end up earning higher salaries because of their degrees pay more, although I would suggest that the proposed threshold of £21,000 is far too low.

Perhaps we need an attitude change. Universities cannot be free, but they should be accessible. Instead of a long-term repayment model that keeps the spectre of debt hanging over them, maybe those who cannot afford the fees could be given community work throughout their long vacations to pay back some of the debt while they are students.

Why should students get five months of holidays a year? If they worked full-time for, say, three of those months doing administration, hedge-trimming, hole-filling or whatever for the council, they could be rewarded with a £3,000 reduction in their tuition fees, which would go to their university.

This would be the equivalent of 40 hours a week on minimum wage and while the student wouldn't get cash in their pockets, it would be more beneficial for them in the long run. And they would still have two months left in which to lie around.

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