Student choices: Three-quarters say new charges could deter students from university places

To accompany the Student Choices conference, The Independent has commissioned a survey of children's and parents' attitudes to fees and charges. Maureen O'Connor looks at what families make of the new measures
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More than 80 per cent of prospective students and their parents disagree with the Government's introduction of university fees and the abolition of the maintenance grant. No surprise there, perhaps. This is a new charge and the people who have to pay don't like it. To expect anything different might be like expecting turkeys to approve of Christmas.

But this is a charge with a difference. A university education is voluntary. You don't have to go, although recent governments have been unanimous in the view that many more people should. What The Independent survey of students and their parents reveals is that a large proportion of those who will be expected to commit themselves to these new charges from next October and the year after are thinking twice about it.

Almost three-quarters of potential students claim they might be put off going to university by the new charges, according to the survey of 500 parents and more than 500 young people aged 16 to 18 carried out for The Independent and The Independent on Sunday.

It must be worrying that 27 per cent of students who have been motivated enough to get themselves onto sixth form or college courses at the age of 16 think that the new financial arrangements might seriously affect their decision to go into higher education at 18. The proportion seriously worried rises to 34 per cent amongst young people from poorer families, who are already under-represented in the universities.

Overall, a similar proportion of parents seem to be disaffected by the new arrangements. But a startling 43 per cent of parents in social classes C2, D and E say they will now be much less likely to encourage their children to go to university.

To some extent, concern may have been made worse by the lack of information parents and children say they have received. This is in spite of David Blunkett's personal letter to this age group, distributed through schools and colleges, explaining the changes.

As time goes on, the details will undoubtedly filter through more effectively and working class families may be relieved to learn that they will not be liable for even means- tested fees if they earn less than pounds 23,000 a year. But there seems little doubt from this survey that loans are seen as a disincentive and very many families bitterly regret the loss of the means-tested grant.

The survey leaves some serious questions unanswered. What can be done about the particular anxiety amongst girls and their mothers about the new arrangements, so soon after girls have got onto level terms with boys in the competition for university places?

And what can be done to reassure prospective students from less well- off homes who have clearly been frightened by the new arrangements, in spite of the efforts which have been made to protect poorer families?

If the take-up of places by young people from middle class backgrounds really has reached saturation point, the fact that they are not deterred by fees and loans is beside the point. They will go to university come- what-may, but there are simply not enough of them to push the age participation rate up much further.

It is the tender flowers from non-university backgrounds who need nurturing to prepare them and their parents for commitment not just to higher education, but to its costs. So far the Government's efforts seem to have had the effect of a dose of weedkiller. Whatever the merits of the new policies in the long term, they seem to have gained no marks at all for presentation so far.