Education+: The cost of Dearing

What will the new proposals really mean, for students and parents? Maureen O'Connor assesses them, and talks to a mother who fears the worst
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The Independent Online
As higher education digests the Dearing proposals, questions about the working of the Government's new student finance system of fees and loans are coming in thick and fast. Answers will not come until the Government issues its White Paper in the autumn, but already academics, students' organisations and parents are raising issues that will have to be resolved.

The first of these is how far the new financial regime, which will transfer to graduates the burden of their maintenance, and some of the educational cost, will act as a deterrent to applicants. The Government claims that a similar system introduced in Australia has not been a deterrent, but one vice-chancellor here has already forecast a drop in applications of up to 40,000 students a year.

The National Union of Students, which does not object to loans for maintenance but is adamantly opposed to imposing fees, says that Australia has already pushed its fee contribution up from an initial 23 per cent to 40 per cent, and that this is definitely putting people off. They see the pounds 1,000 charge here as the thin edge of a similar wedge.

The effect of the proposals will inevitably differ across the different income groups. Last year only 9.7 per cent of university applicants came from social classes 4 and 5, and these are almost certainly among the 30 per cent of students currently receiving a full maintenance grant. They will exchange that support for the extra burden of loans to cover maintenance, and possibly a proportion of the fee bill as well.

The other 70 per cent of students currently rely to a greater or lesser extent on parental contributions for support, although half of these parents do not contribute the full amount for which they are assessed. For them, gains or losses will depend upon how generous their parents are still prepared to be.

Another major cause of concern is the length of courses. The Government has said that it will take account of the special needs of students on medical and dentistry courses, which last five years. But these are not the only areas that demand study for more than the standard three years. Most degree courses at Scottish universities extend to four years, and NUS Scotland is talking urgently to the Scottish Office to make sure that Scottish students, and the large number of outsiders who also study there, are not penalised.

The Royal Institute of British Architects is concerned that loans to cover its five-year courses may deter students from poorer homes. Universities such as Surrey, with a high proportion of four-year sandwich courses, are worried that students who are not paid during their year out in industry, commerce or the health and social services, do not suffer financially because of the vocational demands of their courses.

There are also fears that professions demanding either a four-year degree course or a postgraduate year - law, accountancy, engineering, even journalism these days - may become the preserve of middle-class students whose families can help them through an extra year of study. On postgraduate courses, full fees are usually payable.

Between now and the autumn there is a great deal to be clarified and - as the interview on this page confirms - there is ample time for the growth of a ground swell of opposition to the Dearing proposals from that most neglected of voices - that of the parents ...

The day the Dearing Report came out and the Government announced the details of its fees and loans proposals, Agnes Carrey was at her daughter's graduation. The news from Westminster, she says, cast a shadow over her enormous pride at seeing Laura-Jane gain a lower second in medieval history from Surrey University.

Mrs Carrey's concern is not for her daughter, who got through her three- year course on a grant and a modest loan. It is for her 17-year-old son, Samuel, who is hoping to do chemistry at Surrey in a year's time.

The course he wants is a four-year one, including a year abroad, and Mrs Carrey thinks that the new system will simply make that an impossible option. The level of debt will be too great. "My son is a very bright boy. His education should not be dependent on money - or the lack of it," she maintains.

The ending of the maintenance grant, she says, is a slap in the face for people like her who have struggled themselves, and have put everything into their children's education for a better future. Since hers is a family with a moderate income, she fears she will be hit by the new fee requirement, too.

"Laura-Jane's degree was the result of 15 years of solid parental support and a conscious decision on my part not to work while the children needed me at home. I did voluntary work in their schools, helped run the PTAs, helped with their homework. Then, on graduation day, I suddenly felt we were spiralling back to Victorian times, when only a wealthy elite could get a decent education."

She is so furious that she is planning to set up a protest campaign as soon as the summer holidays are over. "If marching up Whitehall is what it takes, then that is what I will do," she says. "They are not going to get away with this."

Mrs Carrey's fury at the new proposals has its roots in the the struggle she and her husband have had to gain education and security at a time of great social upheaval. Now living in south-west London, they came south 15 years ago when the collapse of heavy industry in the west of Scotland put her husband out of work.

"He was a child who deliberately failed the 11-plus. He lost his father when he was seven years old and he knew that for the sake of his widowed mother he had to work as soon as he could." He became a cabinet-maker, taught woodwork and, like many skilled workers, has had several periods of unemployment.

Mrs Carrey herself lost her father at the age of 10 and grew up believing that higher education was beyond her reach. "We were absolutely determined that our children would not be put into the position we were," she says.

The prospect of her son starting his adult life thousands of pounds in debt horrifies her. She is determined that it is not an option she will tolerate for him. "I would sell the house and move into a flat to pay for my son's education, rather than let him go into that sort of debt."

But if he gains a place on the coveted Surrey University course he will have to live away from home and either borrow to cover the cost or rely heavily on his parents. The alternative is for him to live at home and travel to a university closer at hand, and take a course he is less interested in.

Some families, she thinks, will simply decide that university for their children is out of the question. "Not everyone is as determined as me. Not everyone sees the value of education. And that is going to be a tragedy for some young people.

"My son is going to be looking at loans of pounds 10,000 to pounds 12,000, or more. That is a lot of money. And the idea that graduates are always going to earn more is wrong. It depends on the discipline they study and the class of degree they get. Some firms won't look at graduates with a lower second. There are enormous variables."

Mrs Carrey hopes that as the financial implications of the new proposals sink in, more parents will become as incensed as she is. She will spend the summer working out how to contact as many people as she can in sixth forms, sixth-form and tertiary colleges, parent teacher associations and students' unions. "I want to target parents with children coming up . I don't think parents will take this lying down."

Agnes Carrey can be contacted on 0181-942 5314n