Students say fees would affect course choice

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The Independent Online

Students are struggling with record debts and would have considered "cheaper" universities if their chosen courses had charged top-up fees of £3,000, according to a poll published today.

The average student debt has risen by 43 per cent since 2000, the Mori survey showed. Undergraduates now expect to graduate owing £10,205. Debt among students in their final year rose by 74 per cent, from £4,611 to £8,031.

The survey for Unite, the student accommodation company, coincided with the publication of a report from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development which backed Tony Blair's tuition-fee proposals.

Downing Street seized on the report, insisting that it vindicated the Prime Minister's stance. Mr Blair began the final push towards next Tuesday's vote on top-up fees with the first in a series of meetings with potential rebels designed to defuse a Government defeat.

He met MPs singly and in small groups for two hours in his oak-panelled Commons office. His spokesman said: "The Government is not complacent about Tuesday and from the Prime Minister down will continue to make its case both to the public and Parliamentary colleagues."

Opponents of fees insist they have more than 100 MPs willing to vote against the proposals. Government sources say they will win next week's vote but were warning last night that "it's still going to be tight". Whips believe between 50 and 60 rebels are highly likely to rebel, but are trying to target another 30 or 40 who may be persuadable. Charles Clarke addressed MPs again last night and a group of vice-chancellors will speak to labour members today (Wed) in a further effort to win round undecided backbenchers.

A test of backbench opinion will come today when the Socialist Campaign group of MPs holds a rally at the Commons aimed at persuading critics of fees to hold their ground.

Further backing from the Government came from the University of Teesside, which withdrew its opposition to top-up fees, arguing that concessions had made the proposals "reasonable and workable".

The Unite survey found that two-thirds of undergraduates would have been forced to reconsider their choice of university "to some extent" if they had been required to pay variable top-up fees. The proportion jumped to 79 per cent when £3,000 was suggested as the maximum fee, and rose to 81 per cent for fees of £5,000.

A third of middle-class and 44 per cent of working-class students said that they would "definitely" have chosen another university if fees had been set at £3,000.

Despite growing debts, the survey, based on interviews with 1,065 students, showed more than nine out of 10 students believed university was a worthwhile investment.

Four out of 10 undergraduates said they were "seriously worried" about debt. Liabilities averaged £4,760, up £157 on the previous year.

Claire Callender, a professor of social policy at the South Bank University in London and an expert on student funding, said the survey showed poorer students would be attracted to cheaper universities under the Government's plans.

"I think the survey confirms that when students make decisions about what university to go to, financial issues will influence their decision," she said. Mandy Telford, the president of the National Union of Students, said the survey proved that the cost of a degree would affect students' university choices.