The gigantic confidence trick

Tuition fees for higher education may prove damaging not only for less affluent students but for the universities as well
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It is a time for hard choices. John Hassett, an A-level student from Coventry, won't be going to university next year. He wants to study law, but because he will be made to pay tuition fees, Hassett has decided to take a year out to earn some money. Under the government's new scheme, once he has graduated and is earning more than pounds 17,000 a year, he will repay the loan he will need to take out to meet tuition fees, at around pounds 52 per month.

Earning money in a gap year will reduce the debts he will inevitably build up during his student years. Hassett thinks this worthwhile even though he will miss the last year of the maintenance grant, which is to be phased out completely during the next academic year.

Tom Bellwood, an 18-year-old from Ilford, Essex, currently in the upper- sixth form at Wanstead High School, was considering higher education until the news about tuition fees broke. Now he is looking for a job.

If Bellwood were to take a degree course he would be entitled to free tuition because his mother receives state benefits. But he wanted to do a one-year journalism course at the University of Central Lancashire, and children of parents on benefits do not qualify for free tuition on one-year courses. "It's a brilliant course and I've got a lot of friends there," says Bellwood. "But, to be honest, I think I'd be better off getting a job in the City as a runner. Friends of mine who left school at 16 have already got a two-year head start on me."

Even if he had free tuition, Bellwood would be forced to take a loan. Although his mother falls into the lowest-income category, he would still have to cope with the abolition of the maintenance grant, another part of the package to fund higher education.

The confusion of Hassett and Bellwood is all too common. Out of the half- page advertisement in the daily newspapers last week - it appears in the Sundays today - loomed the stark words "TUITION FEES". It suggests a national crisis, rather like the earlier "Aids: Don't Die Of Ignorance" campaign. To get a "clearer picture", students were urged to call a government hotline for an information leaflet.

THE GOVERNMENT is spending pounds 500,000 on its information campaign and on sending an individual letter to every potential university student from David Blunkett, the Education Secretary. It may not be enough.

The final date for university applications is 15 December and chaos reigns in sixth-form common rooms and in university admissions offices as students and academics try to discover what tuition fees will really mean for higher education in Britain. The National Union of Students has identified 15 points of inaccuracy in the information leaflet designed to allay student fears and clarify the meaning of the new legislation.

It is also a time of falling numbers. The evidence so far is that applications across universities are, on average, down almost 8 per cent on last year. The slump varies dramatically between universities (see table below), but some are startling. At Salford University, for example. environmental studies and art and design technology are down 45 per cent, and media studies down 31 per cent. At Kent both humanities and social sciences are 29 per cent down on the same time last year.

Unanswered questions mean that students on four- or five-year courses do not know whether they will be required to pay for the extra two years they will spend at university. The Government is considering exempting medical and dental students from paying tuition fees from the fifth year onward, although there is no such exemption under discussion for veterinary students, which concerns the Royal Veterinary College.

For students in Scotland, where courses normally last four years, the situation is more perplexing still. The Scottish Office will pay the first year's tuition fees for Scottish students at Scottish universities, but not for English students at Scottish universities. Scottish universities, concerned at falling rolls of English students, are considering an appeal to the High Court.

Falling numbers seriously endanger the finances of individual universities, because the amount of funding received by a university is directly affected by student numbers. If the trend holds up, there will fewer academic resources for all students, whether they are paying or not.

THE NUS, which has mounted a vociferous campaign against fees, is planning a week of action against tuition fees starting in seven days' time. Even so, the opposition has lacked coherence so far. This is hardly surprising since the students of the future are still at school, current higher education students will not be affected by tuition fees and student unions in general have been worn down by a steady erosion in their living standards.

But surveys conducted by the NUS on access to higher education suggest that tuition fees and the phasing out of the maintenance grant is a double blow to lower-income families, and that it is particularly likely to deter students from ethnic minorities, who may have culturally-specific objections to getting into debt, and women students, who are generally less confident about getting high-flying jobs after graduation, or of gaining first- class degrees.

The fairly incoherent campaign also reflects divisions between universities on tuition fees. A straw poll for the Independent on Sunday revealed that, while many are in favour, other university vice-chancellors would prefer the issue to be put off until the next academic year, to allow the Department for Education and Employment to fine-tune the procedures involved.

Graham Wright, assistant principal of the University of Abertay in Dundee, says: "There are so many unanswered questions. The confusion in Scotland is such that perhaps the Government should wait a year before introducing the tuition fee, so they can iron out the problems."

On the other hand, Professor Michael Stirling, the Vice-Chancellor of Brunel University in London, says quite simply: "I am happy to go along with the Government's proposals because I need the money." He says applications to Brunel are actually up on last year's figures, possibly because of the vocational nature of the university's courses which students may feel will help offset the lifetime in debt they face, but he is concerned that students will be put off from applying to the faculty of engineering because the four year course may cost them an extra pounds 1,000.

The theory according to Ron Dearing, whose report on financing higher education led to tuition fees, is that they are acceptable because graduate students would earn more as a result of their qualifications. A recent study by the University of Birmingham for the Higher Education Research Council showed that male graduates aged 30-34 earn salaries 30 per cent higher than men who only got A-levels. For women graduates the figure was 46 per cent higher.

The Committee of Vice- Chancellors and Principals, which represents the heads of British universities, has accepted the Government's new funding proposals, partly because of the Dearing argument. Diana Warwick, the CVCP chief executive, explains: "Tuition fees are the only realistic way to ensure students continue to get good-quality higher education. Students from lower-income families won't have to pay and the new loans scheme is linked to how much you earn after graduating, so it's fairer than the existing one. It's right that graduates who can afford it pay towards their tuition costs because they can earn more and have greater career prospects."

If this is the case, the message is not getting through to students. It may take more than a pounds 500,000 advertising campaign to convince some of them that a degree, especially in non-vocational subjects, is really worth the debts they will pay off over the first 20 years or so of their working lives.

In all the chaos, which will undoubtedly deepen as the 15 December deadline approaches, there is only one certainty: the notion of a right to free higher education in Britain has quietly died. Phil Willis, the Liberal Democrat spokesman for higher education, asks: "How could such a gigantic confidence trick be perpetuated on so many? The answer is simple. Everyone wants to believe the Government has found a solution to our tertiary education funding crisis ... and that wish is the vital ingredient for any magician."

Additional research by Tom Fox

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